The scale of Titanic, the historical event, is one of those concepts that, once absorbed, is hard to get out of your head. And so it is with the score of “Titanic,” the musical.
Songwriter Maury Yeston, of “Nine” fame, created a majestic composition filled with the type of heart-pounding choral numbers that reinforce a central idea of this 1997 Tony winner — that the fates of the more than 2,200 passengers on the doomed ocean liner were linked, tragically and unalterably. From the stokers in the boiler rooms to the Strauses in first class, every life bore significance — just as, on a stage, every voice in the variegated cast is essential to completing Yeston’s euphonious tapestry.
The glories of Yeston’s craftsmanship are honored fully on Signature Theatre’s stage, in director Eric Schaeffer’s splendidly sung — and steered — revival in the company’s Max theater. Configuring the seating on all four sides of Paul Tate dePoo III’s innovative set, a design dominated by a network of nautical gangplanks and bridges splicing the air, Schaeffer places the audience within virtual arm’s length of the action. This proves to be a huge help with a work that, aside from its robust, music-driven emotionality, lacks a thoroughly engaging theatrical rationale.
Despite its best-musical Tony, “Titanic,” with a book by the late Peter Stone (“1776”), is not a favorite on the musical-revival circuit, because, one suspects, the sprawling piece demands a huge, vocally adept cast and, more to the point, the story has nowhere to go but down. “How could such a terrible thing happen to such a marvelous ship?” someone asks, and well, that pretty much sums the musical up. It’s essentially a pageant of man-made calamity, the mingled one-note tales of rich and poor voyagers headed to America with storied pasts or grand hopes. The lives of most of them dissolve in the hubris of an overreaching steamship company that, among other examples of shortsightedness, didn’t sufficiently armor the infrastructure or provide the requisite number of lifeboats.
Like the ship itself — “the largest moving object in the world,” the cast sings in the breathtaking opening sequence — “Titanic” has to carry a tremendous amount of weight. And though it no longer has to emerge from the shadow of the Oscar-winning blockbuster movie of the same title that came out the same year, the musical can’t conjure with particular substance the gallery of personalities it scatters across the ship’s decks. James Cameron’s lavish disaster flick is more successful in part because it reduces unfathomable horror to a single love story.
Nevertheless, the tension and pathos of “Titanic” the musical resound more potently in the intimate environment Schaeffer masterminds than perhaps ever before. This is one of the most sophisticatedly conceived and shepherded productions of this director’s career, and just the sort of boldly outsize project that this company should be undertaking. For it turns out that your heart is in your throat far more of the time than during the comparatively lumbering Broadway original. No small amount of responsibility for this arises out of the decision to engage conductor James Moore and upgrade this version’s orchestrations for a complement of 17 musicians, ensconced in the balcony. (Down below, Frank Labovitz’s costumes, especially for the first-class ladies, and Matthew Gardiner’s crisp dances supply additional rewarding accents.)
What lovely harmonies this all makes for. Ryan Hickey’s excellent sound design plays a significant role here, too, but the cast, made up largely of Signature regulars and semi-regulars, has never sounded better. Among the 20 singer-actors, many come across as plugged in to special high-voltage batteries for the occasion, and that goes doubly for Tracy Lynn Olivera as celebrity-obsessed second-class passenger Alice Beane; Sam Ludwig as stoker Frederick Barrett; Bobby Smith as ship designer Thomas Andrews; Nick Lehan, playing radio operator Harold Bride; Iyona Blake as Caroline Neville, a sort-of incognito eloping swell; and Kevin McAllister as the ship’s first officer, William Murdoch.
They all get their moments to wrap their supple voices around Yeston’s songs, whose period influences range from rag to Gilbert and Sullivan. The solo high points include Ludwig’s rendition of “Barrett’s Song,” a lament by a lowly stoker that highlights the musical’s critique of the rigid early-20th-century class system that’s replicated on the ship. Lehan, in a duet with Ludwig, contributes a stirring “The Night Was Alive.” In Act 2, which is consumed with the aftermath of the ship’s collision with the iceberg, Smith joins the beleaguered captain, E.J. Smith (Christopher Bloch), and the bullying steamship line chairman, J. Bruce Ismay (Lawrence Redmond), for “The Blame,” a well-staged round robin of melodic finger-pointing.
Sometimes-undersung heroes of other Signature shows are here accorded some nice moments, too: Russell Sunday, as a tolerant husband; John Leslie Wolfe, playing magnate Isidor Straus; and Stephen Gregory Smith, as a deckhand applying plaintive force to the song “No Moon” that prefigures the ship’s fatal wound.
Yeston’s score, though, reveals that in giving strength to the “Titanic” numbers, there is strength in numbers. Nothing on this evening surpasses the wonderful extended opening sequence when an exhilarating chorus of the damned assembles on the stage and sings so poignantly of what lies ahead. You almost believe they have an inkling that they are soon to be a heavenly choir.
Titanic , music and lyrics by Maury Yeston, book by Peter Stone. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Choreography, Matthew Gardiner; music direction, James Moore; orchestrations, Josh Clayton; set, Paul Tate dePoo III; costumes, Frank Labovitz; lighting, Amanda Zieve; sound, Ryan Hickey; wigs, Anne Nesmith; casting, Walter Ware; production stage manager, Kerry Epstein. With Christopher Mueller, Matt Conner, Sean Burns, Hasani Allen, Florence Lacey, Jamie Eacker, Erin Driscoll, Katie McManus, Chris Sizemore. About 2 hours 25 minutes. Tickets,$49-$119. Through Jan. 29 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Visit sigtheatre.org or call 703-820-9771.