I normally don't review children's theater, but the temptation to watch several dozen teenagers drown was too great, and so I attended an evening performance of Valley Youth Theatre's Titanic last week. I've seen this show once before, enacted by adults, and so I knew what I was in for: Peter Stone's historically accurate book; Maury Yeston's pleasant but forgettable score; some impressive hydraulics; and a cast of more than 50 representing the more than 1,500 doomed passengers on the big boat's ill-fated maiden voyage. What I didn't expect is a production this well executed, thanks in part to opulent rented sets and costumes, but also to a talented young cast and to seamless direction that kept the inevitable briefly at bay.
To the uninitiated, Titanic sounds like a bad joke: a Broadway musical about the most infamous disaster in seafaring history in which more than a thousand people died. Indeed, early contempt for Titanic was so great, it was deemed a flop before the show ever opened in New York in 1997. Lukewarm reviews nearly sank the production, and by the time it scooped up a surprising five Tony awards (including Best Musical, Score and Book), the show had already closed.
But this Titanic gives us everything the waterlogged film version did not: a peek into the lives of some of the actual passengers; themes of man vs. machine and the evils of industry; and -- thank goodness -- absolutely nothing sung by Celine Dion. True, none of the songs that are sung here are particularly memorable, in part because so many of them are anthems, with melodies as wide as an ocean liner and arrangements meant to be sung by crowds of condemned people. But Yeston's occasionally Sondheimesque score (played admirably by Mark Fearey's first-rate orchestra) invokes musical stylings of 1912, and if he overuses the reprise (Act Two contains no less than six of them), he at least revisits his more agreeable melodies.
While the staging finds the cast endlessly parading across the stage or standing in a row to trade lines or belt those big tunes, it's no fault of director Bobb Cooper's. The ocean liner that dwarfs the stage leaves Cooper only the smallest space to work with, and he makes the most of it, giving wide berth and affecting bits of above-the-waist business to tight crowds of actors. He's handed the choreography of "Doing the Latest Rag," a sprightly dance showcase, to Beth Reynolds, who creates simple, credible steps for her capable young dancers.
Cooper is to be lauded for finding so many fine young players and for using them to great advantage. Especially impressive are young Brandon Rivard as coal stoker Frederick Barrett, who has the stage presence of a seasoned pro and the vocal prowess of a young Mario Lanza. Rivard's improbable duet with Bryan Madden, who turns in a moving performance as wireless operator Harold Bride, is the most affecting musical moment in the show: While Barrett sings of his love for the fiancée he left behind, Bride sings a counter melody about his romance with the Marconi International Marine Communications Company, Ltd.
Cooper was also wise not to attempt to re-create the massive hydraulics of Titanic's impressive sinking sequence; instead, he's rented the retrofitted flies and set pieces that allow the ship to sink before our eyes, taking with her into the North Atlantic a tuneful crowd of men, women and children. Kudos to Cooper for pulling off what could have been a sodden mess, and to Valley Youth's Valley youth for not going down with the ship.
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