Peter Stone, who wrote the book for this 1997 Tony-winning musical, proclaims that “the central character in Titanic is the Titanic herself.” He’s correct, inasmuch as no human characters appear on stage.
The ship is certainly stuffed with people, each to their class, as one of Maury Yeston’s lyrics repeatedly insists. But about all those people do for two edifyingly dull hours is symbolize their social station. Spunky, plainspoken Kate from third class wants to improve her lot in America. Social-climbing Alice from second class simply must rub elbows with the millionaires in first class. And the interchangeable first-class passengers want nothing but to marvel at the achievements of the Gilded Age. Meanwhile, the ship’s villainous owner stands around personifying Capitalist Greed, endlessly urging the captain to speed up so the Titanic will complete the crossing in six days. When not demonstrating their positions in the social hierarchy, the characters sing barely differentiable anthems praising the “ship of dreams” for its magnificence (Yeston’s lyrics list, among other minutiae, the ship’s total steel tonnage and the number of eggs brought on its maiden voyage).
The show’s creators avoid narrative, instead spending nearly the entire first act belaboring the ship’s significance: it offers working-poor immigrants transport to a better life, it reifies the Industrial Age’s belief in unending progress, it embodies the timeless human quest to engineer the impossible. The “central character” quickly dissolves into a schematic assemblage of metaphors.
Still, Stone is correct in another sense; the Broadway production’s jaw-dropping four-story set stole the show (it even managed to tilt precariously post-iceberg). In Griffin Theatre’s scaled-down “chamber version” of the show, created in 2012 by original Broadway cast member Don Stephenson, such a feat is impossible. Joe Schermoly’s set consists of spindly white scaffolding, two rolling stair units, and a back wall of stylized, uneven portholes (you’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve wandered into a college production of Anything Goes). With no technical marvels to distract you, you’re stuck having to listen to the score—nearly all of the show is sung—and waiting in vain for something to actually happen.
But then, listening to 20 admirable voices, often blending in thrilling harmonies, isn’t a bad way to spend two hours—even if musical director Elizabeth Doran keeps her cast so focused on diction and vocal placement the singing often feels impersonal. The collection of unaccountable accents from several British Isles both real and imaginary adds an extra level of acoustic challenge.
Things pep up a bit in act two, what with everyone sinking into the frozen North Atlantic, and the sporadic bouts of schmaltz as lovers part and doom descends get the blood circulating. But even amid disaster, Stone and Yeston can’t break their schematic habits; the act halts entirely while the ship’s captain, designer, and owner fling blame at each other unnecessarily in song. By that point in the show, the ship needs to get to the bottom of the ocean as quickly as possible.