Credit: Christopher Mueller

Titanic, the original musical, had the good or bad fortune to open in the spring of 1997, eight months before James Cameron’s Oscar-sweeping movie of the same title. The two enterprises were unrelated save for the fact they dramatized the same tragedy. Both were beset by costly technical problems; the musical’s, amusingly, included a model of the doomed RMS Titanic that refused to sink. Cameron’s movie, meanwhile, went so far over budget that covering the production became a sort of blood sport. For a full year prior to its opening, it was written off as an act of hubris as monumental as the ship that inspired it, a fiasco that couldn’t possibly end up in the black given its swollen price tag.

Titanic-the-Broadway-show lost money despite running for two years and winning five Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Titanic-the-movie won Best Picture and 10 other Academy Awards on its way to becoming the biggest (unadjusted) box-office hit in history. Its long shadow is probably why almost no one remembers there ever was a Titanic musical.

Eric Schaeffer’s vigorous revival for Signature Theatre, beautifully staged and earnestly sung though it is, won’t change that. No element of the performance is subpar. There’s just a remove to 1776 writer Peter Stone’s book and an ersatz quality to Nine composer/lyricist Maury Yeston’s songs that no level of interpretive genius—and Schaeffer’s is very high—could solve. This is a show that sounds like what people who dislike musical theater think musical theater sounds like. “Lady’s Maid,” an Act One song wherein a trio of poor Irish women all named Kate (played by Jamie Eacker, Erica Claire, and, um, Katie McManus) sing of the better lives they intend to make for themselves in America, has a wit too little in evidence elsewhere. Especially considering that—to recycle a lame joke that two different people made to me at intermission—we all know how this story ends.

But it’s the journey that matters, especially when the destination is the bottom of the Atlantic. Stone approaches the tale as a 1970s-style ensemble disaster epic, declining to privilege any one of some three dozen characters too highly. But this intended panorama feels awfully vague, proving Cameron’s decision to build his 195-minute movie around just two primary characters the right one.

In terms of stage time, Titanic’s circumspect chief designer, played by Signature veteran Bobby Smith is first among equals. Though he has worthy company in Christopher Bloch and Lawrence Redmond as the ship’s Captain E. J. Smith and White Star Line executive J. Bruce Ismay, respectively. All three actors are strong. Ismay wants to stage a press coup by arriving in New York ahead of schedule while the chief designer and others urge the Captain not to drive the ship’s engines too hard on her maiden voyage. The captain, persuaded by the White Star Line to delay his retirement until after Titanic has proven her mettle, allows himself to be swayed by Ismay’s flattery. 

This alone isn’t enough to doom the roughly 1,500 who perished, but rather one of several concessions to vanity that contributed to their deaths. Surely the decisions to equip the decks with fewer than half the number of lifeboats needed to carry the ship’s population and to build the compartments of the hold only so high to preserve the grand ballrooms of the upper decks were graver, less impulsive sins. Facts like these make the foundering of the “The Largest Moving Object” ever built (to quote one of those ho-hum, un-hummable tunes) irresistible as a dramatic subject, but Yeston captures only the gigantism of the event—not its thousand tragic ironies. 

On the night I attended, the role of Alice Beane, a starstruck third class passenger usually played by Tracy Lynn Olivera, was performed by Signature stalwart Erin Driscoll, who was marvelous. Alice keeps trying to sneak into areas of the ship reserved for first class travelers. Christopher Mueller has some resonant, understated moments as the ship’s steward, who tries to intercept her without making a scene.

Scenic designer Paul Tate Depoo III wisely does away with any stubbornly buoyant model ship, instead placing a web of ascending gangplanks in Signature’s “Max” space to suggest the grand vessel’s various decks. The in-the-round configuration is a good fit for the many dramas playing out simultaneously aboard the huge ship and lets the audience be closer to the actors. It’s a bit of intimacy that Titanic desperately needs. 

4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. $40-$89. (703) 820-9771.