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It would be waaay too easy to call Titanic an epic disaster—and a little unfair, too, because the puzzling enterprise now docked at the Kennedy Center Opera House doesn’t quite go straight to the bottom.
Musically, in fact, it’s intriguing, though hardly inspiring; although composer Maury Yeston hasn’t created any timeless classics, he is at least not given to Lloyd Webberism. His melodies are relatively subtle, even sinuous, and he doesn’t beat you over the head with repetition; his tunes are just varied and contrary enough to make the audience greedy for the feet-to-the-footlights, faces-to-the-balcony traditionalism of the genuinely glorious chorale that concludes the extended opening sequence. Of course, Yeston is so pleased with that soaring “Sail on, sail on” business that he comes back to it at evening’s end—which seems like cheating; if you’re going to reprise a big number, you should really write more than one, or people will suspect it’s all you had in your ballad box.
But on other levels—design, direction, even, to some extent, performance—the touring Titanic, like the maritime tragedy that inspired it, looks like the end result of a string of unfortunate decisions. Take, for instance, the most obvious of its troubles: Richard Jones’ direction, which is all about lines. Straight lines. So many lines that an audience member might be forgiven for thinking an actual opera was going to break out any minute. Occasionally, a small and irritating child character runs in circles holding a toy boat—my seatmate and I swore we were going to leave if he appeared again, which mercifully he didn’t until the very end—but in general passengers line up along gangplanks, beside deck railings, at dining-room tables, and in porthole openings, freezing occasionally in exaggerated spectator poses or attitudes of contemplation. That effect, taken together with the cardboard characterizations provided by Peter Stone’s book, helps to render the human cargo of this Titanic even more one-dimensional than Stewart Laing’s generally monochrome sets.
Which, judging strictly by appearances, were designed specially so that they could be rolled up and shipped from city to city in FedEx tubes—they’re that flat. “Flats,” in fact, is theater shorthand for the chief scenic element deployed in this touring production: painted drops, made of fabric or some other lightweight material, that shuttle in and out to divide up the stage. One suspects the idea was to evoke an intellectual coolness, a kind of art deco economy of line, but the effect is merely—well, flat. Occasionally, in a burst of creativity, the production presents a flat at a new and different angle; such is the general flatness of Titanic that this is cause for a brief flurry of excitement in the orchestra seats.
There are precious few others. Color is subtly and satisfyingly deployed, in passenger boarding tickets and washes of lighting and even in wardrobe, as a class marker, dividing privileged First and striving Second from plucky Steerage. Stoker Barrett (Marcus Chait), one of two young romantic heroes, cuts a fine figure, though his melodies are sometimes obscured by a vocal wobble wide enough to sail a liner through. Ken Krugman comes across vividly in minor parts (and sings his few lines ravishingly), while Dale Sandish makes radioman Harold Bride both sympathetic and comically neurotic, and has a sweetly distinctive vocal style besides. The characters of Isidor and Ida Strauss (S. Marc Jordan and Taina Elg), the Macy’s magnate and the wife who chooses to die with him rather than escape alone, still have a strange kind of grace, despite the saccharine love duet Yeston and Stone make them perform in the second act, long after such a developmental bit of exposition is necessary or appropriate.
Also in that act, when the worst is at hand, there’s a haunting bit of business in which characters from each social segment speak in turn from behind a row of portholes, just eerily lit faces pondering their fates and the fortune that has brought them. Like most of the elements that together make Titanic, the scene has been overestimated—Stone and Jones let it go on too long—but for a few minutes it’s remarkably affecting.
The unfortunate thing about Titanic is that nothing else in the show measures up. Jones et al. have somehow robbed the century’s most enduringly resonant tragedy of its power—which, until now, only Celine Dion was capable of doing.
Light Up the Sky, the backstage comedy playing at the Olney Theatre Center for the Arts, never had any power other than the power, probably, to amuse the audiences who saw its first production in 1948. But what was a gigglefest in the ’40s isn’t nearly so funny now, and you’d think the only reason to mount this creaky old warhorse would be to provide a showcase for stars big enough and self-confident enough to allow us a few laughs at their own expense.
Patti LuPone, for instance, would be a hoot in the role Carole Healey takes here—that of Irene Livingston, a stage diva with a tendency toward temperament and scene theft. Healey acquits herself quite well, as it happens, grandstanding grandly and sweeping around sweepingly in James Berton Harris’ increasingly over-the-top costumes. (The green velvet dressing gown with the leopard-skin turban: simply divine.) But absent the added spice of self-parody, there’s not enough going on here to keep anyone amused for the two-and-a-half hours it takes for Irene and her compatriots to learn their lesson.
Said lesson, delivered before and after the first performance of a Broadway-bound play during its Boston tryouts, is something about being better than our basest impulses without becoming holier-than-thou. Coming from a handful of prosperous theatrical types who spend the entire play ensconced in a suite at the Ritz-Carlton, it’s hardly the most resonant message.
The rest of John Going’s ensemble is either miscast or misdirected, though it’s possible that Holly Rudkin and Tony Hoty will grow on you as a brassy Ice Capades star and her theatrical-producer husband. And though it’s always a pleasure to see Halo Wines at work, her salty stage-mother characterization feels a little phoned-in. Aside from Healey, Ben Hulan is the one standout as the neophyte author whose play everyone adores—until they actually perform it for a stone-cold audience.
Olney has staged its usual lavish production (Daniel Conway’s set is a suite dream), and there are certainly a few laughs—not least when Hart has his characters take swipes at the critics, those soulless bastards. But even in the utterly ridiculous world of the professional theater, there are only so many easy targets; when Light Up the Sky finishes taking its potshots at them, its glow dims rather dramatically. CP