Guest review by Anne Siegel.
In 1912, the fabled ocean liner Titanic never made it to its destination in New York City. In 2021, it seemed as though the Milwaukee Repertory Theater would never launch its version of Titanic: The Musical. With the pandemic taking hold in America, the prospects of mounting a show as complex and formidable as Titanic seemed bleak, indeed. For a time, it seemed as though the whole country was coming to a standstill.
Happily, life is beginning to return to normal. And Milwaukee Rep’s production of Titanic finally set sail April 9 at the largest of the complex’s three theaters, the Quadracci Powerhouse. And the 700-seat theater is an ideal fit for this miraculous undertaking, which has stretched the Milwaukee Rep’s considerable resources to their limits. This is the largest show in the Rep’s 67-year history.
The result is a not-to-be-missed theatrical experience, which blends spectacular storytelling, music and dance to create a stirring and memorable production.
Titanic: The Musical took home five Tony Awards for its 1997 Broadway run. The book was written by Peter Stone, with music and lyrics by Maury Yeston and orchestrations by Joshua Clayton.
The musical takes the theatergoer on a journey through the lives of fictional and real-life passengers and crew. It details the aspirations of third-class passengers seeking to build better lives for themselves, to the first-class quarters far above them. On the top deck, the super-rich and celebrated passengers stroll about in small groups, displaying their finery for all to admire.
The show’s first act is mainly a celebratory ode to the grandeur of the ship itself, an engineering marvel of its time. During the musical’s overture, the audience watches a series of grainy, black-and-white projections that depict the ship’s actual blueprints being drawn, and then phases of construction. As the sweeping, majestic overture continues, dozens of workers are seen working in the Titanic’s shipyard. They look like ants creeping below the huge frame of this massive ship, which grows to become 11 stories tall.
The audience’s immersion into the Titanic’s world begins even earlier than this. In the theater lobby, each patron is handed an authentic-looking boarding pass for the Titanic’s maiden voyage. On one side is imprinted the name, age and eventual destination for a single passenger.
The fate of this person can only be seen when waving the card underneath a special reader device, located elsewhere in the lobby. (Here’s a tip: If you’re given a pass belonging to a male passenger, chances are he didn’t survive the voyage).
If this hasn’t sufficiently piqued the audience’s interest, the large cast does a fantastic job in drawing attention to the arrivals on this historic voyage. A number of first-act songs showcase tributes to the ship, including accolades to “the Largest Floating Object in the World.”
Meanwhile, all the upper-class guests are welcomed aboard with great fanfare. There’s an undisputable aura of celebration, as the ladies’ feathered hats and swirling skirts (costumes by longtime designer Alexander B. Tecoma) set the stage alight with color and movement.
One of the musical’s focal points is a gossipy, second-class passenger (Lillian Castillo). She provides (sometimes scandalous) details of famous and wealthy guests as they stride towards the dock. One of the most prominent men, she reveals, is traveling with a woman “who is not his wife.” Then she spots John Jacob Astor (Jamey Feshold), stepping on board with his new bride. Castillo notes that the bride is 29 years younger than Astor.
Once on board, the sneaky Castillo tries every trick to enter the first-class areas, much to the consternation of her hardware store-owning husband, Edgar (Steve Watts). But Castillo is so bubbly and lovable that one cannot fault her for wanting to rub shoulders with the upper crust. She flatly tells her husband that her own life does not meet her expectations.
Edgar, a steady, unflappable man with infinite patience, gently reminds her to be grateful for what she has. His words become eerily prophetic when the disaster strikes.
To its credit, the musical gives equal weight to the lives of third-class characters. Stuffed into a cramped hold far below the first-class cabins, the passengers tell of their individual dreams in the New World. One woman sees herself as a lady’s maid, while another wants to be a seamstress. A third woman wants to be a governess. Several of the men chime in. One longs to be a constable, while another wishes to be an engineer. One just wants to become a millionaire.
One cannot help but feel a sense of sadness as they sing, as we know what lies ahead. When Titanic inevitably hits an iceberg, most of the first-class passengers are directed to the lifeboats. Many of the lower-level passengers are left to fend for themselves, so far fewer of them survive the tragedy.
A standout among the third-class passengers is English actor Kate McGowan. She’s one of several Irish characters—all named Kate—who’ve booked passage on the Titanic. With her fiery red hair, this feisty and plain-speaking Kate seeks not only a new life, but also a husband and father for her unborn child. To that end, she strikes up a shipboard romance with Jim Farrell (Brian Krinsky).
Many of those who attend the Milwaukee Rep show will be familiar with James Cameron’s award-winning film of the same title. Well, don’t look for steamy romantic scenes, or dramatic rescues between lovers at the Milwaukee Rep.
Another thing Milwaukee Rep audiences will not see is the jutting prow or massive side of a large ship. You also won’t see a drop of water. Set designer Tim Macabee takes a unique approach in creating this Titanic world. Ably illuminating his designs is Jason Fassl’s lighting, with video and projection designs by Mike Tutaj. Sound designer Cricket S. Myers creates a realistic atmosphere throughout.
Some characters will be familiar to both film and musical fans. Milwaukee actor Andrew Varela is a dominating presence as Ismay, chairman of the White Star. In the increasingly competitive world of ocean liners, he claims that speed has become a priority. He wants the Titanic to arrive in port a full day ahead of schedule. Ismay pushes Captain Smith (David Hess, in a beautifully restrained performance) to constantly increase the ship’s speed, further hurtling it towards disaster. (Also, in an attempt to mollify Ismay, the captain switches to a more northern route. While slightly shorter, the new route makes it more likely that the Titanic will encounter icebergs.)
In addition to the cast members mentioned above, impressive performances are turned in by actor Jeremy Landon Hays as the Titanic’s designer, and actor Steve Pacek as the telegraph operator.
Actor Nathaniel Hackmann (Broadway: Les Miserables) demonstrates a strong onstage presence and a beautiful voice as Barrett, a veteran crewman who works in the boiler room. Early on, Barrett questions the captain’s orders that keep increasing the ship’s speed. Nonetheless, he is reminded that a boiler room stoker is in no position to speak up. Barrett returns to shoveling coal in the bowels of the ship.
Titanic’s fateful iceberg collision occurs at the end of Act I. The second act mostly focuses on revealing bits of information to crew members and passengers as the ship continues to sink.
The women (and a couple of children) are forcibly pulled away from the men and herded onto lifeboats. But one of the first-class couples decides to stay together onboard. Philip Hoffman and Milwaukee actor Carrie Hitchcock portray the elderly couple with a great deal of sensitivity and warmth.
Much of the show’s authenticity is conveyed by the period costumes, from the wool caps and cotton duffel bags for the sailors, to the dark blue suits festooned with rows of gold buttons and gold-striped sleeves for the ship’s officers. (The first-class passengers’ attire is completely gorgeous, especially the ladies’ dinner gowns.)
Staging all of the 30 actors, plus incorporating dance sequences (by Jenn Rose) and musical interludes (by music director Dan Kazemi) is, in itself, a gargantuan task. Yet Milwaukee Rep artistic director Mark Clements, who directs Titanic: The Musical, makes it all seem to flow effortlessly.
Clements also captures the fascination with this ill-fated cruise (which just entered its 110th year). And audiences can’t help but feel a strong attachment to passengers who survived—and those who didn’t—after being “introduced” to them through this epic musical.
Titanic: The Musical continues through May 14 at the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater at Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Please check the theater’s website for Covid-19 precautions. Buy tickets online, call 414-224-9490, or visit the box office at 108 E. Wells St., Milwaukee.
This review was excerpted from an article that originally appeared on Milwaukee’s Shepherd Express website.
Anne Siegel is a Milwaukee-based writer and theater critic who has been a member of the American Theatre Critics Association for more than 30 years. She covers a wide range of Milwaukee theater for the city’s alternative newspaper. Her work also appears on several theater-related websites.
Did you enjoy this post and our coverage of Chicago’s arts scene? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation by PayPal. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!