Hit List, Part Two: Titanic

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Griffin Titanic musicalContinuing my musical theater queen recertification process (not that I ever lost my designation as beloved BFFs and theater buddies can attest), the third musical I saw this past week was Griffin Theatre’s staging of a new, minimalist take on Maury Yeston’s Titanic, the 1997 winner of the Tony for Best Musical, a version that was widely acclaimed in London last year when it was staged by Southwark Playhouse. Interestingly, I was actually planning to see a planned North American premiere of this version in Toronto last summer, billed as a pre-Broadway tryout, which was then subsequently cancelled due to the lack of an available Broadway theater for the 2014-2015 season (looks like this pre-Broadway Toronto run has been re-started for spring 2015 though with opera superstar Ben Heppner headlining as reported here).  So I was beyond thrilled when I heard that Griffin Theatre was going to go ahead and stage the North American premiere (hooray for Chicago theater!) though a very small part of me couldn’t help but wonder: could a Chicago storefront theater, even one such as Griffin with a highly-regarded track record of artistic success, match the aspirations and vision of a production that was being primed for Broadway? Well, that little nagging voice could go bury itself back inside that skeptical second-city insecurity box it sprung from, because this surprising, superb, stirring production of Titanic, elegantly and richly directed by Scott Weinstein and performed to heart-breaking perfection by 20 of Chicago’s best actors is one of the can’t-miss shows of the fall. I don’t think the Toronto production could have done any better.

Titanic has been re-envisioned as a “chamber” musical which means that the score has been re-orchestrated for six musicians instead of a large Broadway orchestra; the story has been trimmed down and focused with some characters excised; the ensemble cast has been reduced from the original 37 to 20 with many of the actors doubling and tripling roles (the clever staging of “The First Class Roster” pokes fun at this downsized casting by having the same actress using different hats play the various wives and mistresses of the first class passengers, ranging from ingénue to older woman); the production design is stark and multi-purpose. But for those of us who have sniffed red-eyed through multiple viewings of James Cameron’s overwrought Oscar winner despite our better judgment, we really don’t need the sweep and the spectacle (how can anything in the theater compare to that monstrous movie?), we know the menacing iceberg will pop-up and the mammoth ship will sink due as much to mechanics and construction as to the Alpha-male hubris of its owner, architect, and captain. We care about the stories of the people on board the ship, and these stories are so much more beautifully-wrought in the tiny confines of the 98-seater Theater Two of Theater Wit in Lakeview. I mean you talk about chamber theater, this is it. The storytelling of Peter Stone’s book is so much more clearly rendered in this space– not only the sailors’ longing for fiancés back home, the immigrants’ dreams for a better life in an American where “the streets are paved with gold”, the officers’ lonely lives at sea, but also, the infuriating, oppressive social inequalities of the early 20th century (there were a limited number of lifeboats on the ship because storage space for them was removed to create bigger first class cabins).  And Weinstein impressively creates emotional moments and haunting stage images throughout (the penultimate number “The Foundering” sung by the survivors is simply yet achingly staged and lighted). He also fluidly stages the action in the small space with no clutter or unnecessary movement, beautifully supported by Joe Schermoly’s carefully-curated, multi-functional set design in which a second-story deck, moveable stairs and some chairs and tables can imaginatively morph from the ship’s bridge to the ship’s dining room to lifeboats. With this production, I think Weinstein catapults to the first-tier of the city’s invaluable musical theater directors (Gary Griffin and Rachel Rockwell, kindly welcome your newest cohort!).  Everything else in this show is, pardon the pun, pitch-perfect: from Elizabeth Doran’s masterful musical direction to Brandon Wardell’s moody lighting design to Rachel Sypniewski’s vivid period costumes.

And then there’s that glorious cast, who makes every note and lyric emotionally resonate in the intimate space. Each one of the 20 person cast gives essential performances, most of them for two or three different characters, and all of them is at the top of their game.  I think two of the most emotional numbers are the ones when the whole ensemble is onstage:  “Godspeed Titanic” marvelously evokes the breathtaking magnificence of the ship with just the cast’s awe-inspired acting and singing while the “Finale” packs a suckerpunch of emotions from sadness to gratitude to bitter regret and back. But individual performances shine through as well. Justin Adair is swoon-worthy and endearing as the love-struck boiler room stoker Barrett. His gorgeous rendition of “The Proposal/The Night Was Alive” with an attractively earnest Royen Kent as radioman Harold Bride nearly stops the show. Laura McClain, who is fast becoming one of my favorite musical theater actors in the city, gives a gently-nuanced performance as Caroline, the aristocrat who has eloped with a commoner played with melancholy beauty by Matt Edmonds, subtly but effectively conveying his resignation that true love may never overcome class differences. The fiery Kate McGowan leads the rousing “Lady’s Maid”, a heartbreakingly truthful rendition of immigrant dreams made to be dashed and my favorite song in Yeston’s score.

Griffin’s Titanic is the kind of production that re-invigorates my continuing love affair with Chicago storefront theater – with hardly any money but with lots of ingenuity, creativity, artistic commitment, and dazzling acting talent, our shows can be better than any multi-million dollar Broadway-bound epic.

This show deserves a long life and sold-out houses, so drop your weekend plans and run on over to Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. Titanic is playing, for now, until December 7.

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