When: Through Dec. 7
Where: Griffin Theatre Company at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont
Run time: 2 hours and 10 minutes with one intermission
There is a long backstory to how the Griffin Theatre Company nabbed the rights to a reworked and more intimate version of “Titanic,” the soaring Maury Yeston musical that earned five Tony Awards in its original 1997 Broadway version, and was set to return to Broadway in its newer form this season.
But that story hardly matters now, for the Griffin production that opened Sunday night at Theater Wit is such a beauty — “intimate,” yes, but absolutely grand-scale in its emotional punch and its highly polished execution by a golden-voiced cast of 20 under the superb direction of Scott Weinstein and musical director Elizabeth Doran — that any Broadway edition will simply count as a commercial afterthought. It is that good. And even though you know how it all begins — and more crucially, how it all will end — this musical is such a stirring piece of storytelling that you hang on every scene and song as if it were a theatrical lifeboat.
As we are told at the start, the Titanic was a ship of dreams — no landlocked pyramid or gothic cathedral, but a floating city, “a human metropolis, sleek and fast” that in many ways replicated society at large with its strictly delineated class system and its mix of privilege and striving, generosity of spirit and selfishness.
Yeston’s lush melodies and character-defining lyrics are paired with an eloquent book by Peter Stone that does far more than just connect the show’s nearly three dozen songs. And this “revised” version of the show by original Broadway cast member Don Stephenson, with supremely beautiful new orchestrations by Ian Weinberger (winningly played by Doran, Ethan Deppe, Merrick Jones, Scott Dickinson, Elena Spiegel and Lerryn Schaefer), retain every inch of the necessary grandeur.
The first act begins on April 10, 1912, as this great new vessel of the White Star Line sets out on its maiden voyage from Southampton, UK, to New York City, and it climaxes when, five days later, the ship collides with an iceberg. The second act begins as the passengers are roused from their beds and told to put on their life vests, and all soon realize that the ship, which is carrying more than 2,200 people, has been outfitted with only enough lifeboats to save less than half that number. (In a terrific bit of blackly comic commentary, the ship’s fate is suggested by the sight of a coffee cart rolling across the stage of its own volition.)
The Titanic, designed by Thomas Andrews (an intense Eric Lindahl), is owned by J. Bruce Ismay (an aptly arrogant Scott Allen Luke), the English businessman who pressured the crew to hit maximum speed (“a six-day journey”), even though this was not ideal for an untested ship. Ismay’s demands went largely unopposed by the crew that included Capt. Edward Smith (a fine portrayal by Peter Vamvakas as the veteran naval officer capping his career with this voyage), and William Murdoch (Patrick Byrnes, ideal as the insecure second in command). In fact, it is one of the stokers, Fred Barrett (the splendid tenor, Justin Adair, who repeatedly steals the show as the young, romantic laborer) who senses things are not quite right.
The passengers, in first, second and third class, are portrayed by many of the same actors, all of whom give their quite different characters distinctive qualities. Among the elite are the long and happily married couple, Isador Strauss (Sean Thomas), co-owner of Macy’s, and his wife Ida (Emily Grayson). In second class are Alice Beane (Neala Barron), who is hellbent on mixing with the rich and famous, and is impatient with her modest husband, Edgar (Jake Mahler), and the aristocratic Caroline Neville (Laura McLain), who is madly in love with a shopkeeper, Charles Clarke (Matt Edmonds). Third class is populated primarily by young Irish immigrants including three Kates — one played by Kelley Abell, determined to marry Jim Farrell (Kevin Stangler), along with Courtney Jones and Christine Mayland Perkins. Completing the cast are the lonely telegraph officer Harold Bride (lovely work by Royen Kent), and Joshua Bartlett, Nick Graffagna, John Keating and Josh Kohane. The cast makes a particularly thrilling sound when they join their clarion voices in the big ensemble numbers.
Weinstein, fast emerging as a top musical theater directing talent, makes ideal use of Joe Schermoly’s simple but tremendously elegant and effective set (a white metal deck with two movable stairways and a back wall full of portholes, all lit by Brandon Wardell, with the lifeboats conjured by simple wooden chairs). Rachel Sypniewski’s costumes are perfect indicators of the period and social class. And choreographer Sawyer Smith contributes a zesty ragtime dance sequence.
In a small bit of irony, Griffin’s “Titanic” opened the very same night that “The Last Ship,” Sting’s fine new musical, debuted on Broadway. The two shows have a lovely synchrony (the RMS Carpathia, which rescued survivors from the Titanic, was built in the shipyard celebrated in Sting’s story). And though their budgets are on opposite ends of the scale, Griffin’s “Titanic” proves itself a similarly mighty stage-worthy vessel.