The story of the ship Titanic is so well known that you might think it has lost its impact on an audience. Nothing could be further from the truth in StageArt’s production of Titanic the Musical, currently running at Chapel off Chapel in Prahran.
Originally seen on Broadway in a large-scale production in 1995, it won the Tony Award for best musical that year. As Chapel off Chapel is one of our more intimate theatres, there is no way you could put a ship designed to take several thousand passengers in that small space, so Stage Art have come up with an innovative design and production that works beautifully.
What I liked so much about this show is that it creates theatrical magic with just wooden chairs, costumes, and a backdrop with clever projections that shows us the impact of the iceberg shearing into the ship. The performers do everything that would need cups, plates nor glasses through mime – and it works.
The atmosphere is set from the moment you enter the theatre to see a deck and a string quartet. They play throughout the show, joined at times by other instruments unseen to the audience.
With a cast of just 20, director James Cutler and musical director Kent Ross easily convince us that we are with a whole crowd of Titanic passengers, many performers doubling and tripling roles. The combined vocal sound is thrilling, and while the standard of individual voices varied, nothing stood out to spoil a fine production that was well directed both dramatically and musically.
The acting is first rate, and we are drawn into this tragedy as it unfolds, as if hearing it for the first time. Of course, the poignancy is in many of the lines about the Titanic such as “unsinkability”, which we know is going to haunt the survivors, and us, the audience.
It’s a good ensemble cast, with a few standouts for me. Joel Granger, in the role of radio operator Harold Bride has terrific stage magnetism and brings pathos, surety and a fine singing voice. Definitely one to watch in the future. Greta Sherriff as Lady Caroline Neville is a sheer delight, both vocally and as an actor with style and honesty – such a believable performance. Don Winsor as Mr Andrews actually played the role in the touring production of Titanic the Musical in America, and his was another impressive performance. Jon Sebastian’s arrogance as Bruce Ismay made me want to push him overboard, such was the convincing nature of the performance! In the smaller roles of Mr and Mrs Straus, Barry Mitchell and Amanda Stevenson gave extremely touching performances that warmed the heart. Comic relief was expertly provided by Casey Withoos as Alice Beane, and Paul Batey struck the right note as doomed captain E J Smith.
If I have a few minor quibbles, they are that there is a scene in the second half where several male characters hold the stage on their own and stand stock till and silent. While this is effective, the silence lasts too long and I found myself wishing it would end. And the love duet between Mr and Mrs Straus didn’t work for me; however, in general the music is thrilling and uplifting. How refreshing it was to see a musical where the onus of creating the magic lay on the shoulders of our performers, not the bells and whistles. While the story is a tragedy, there is lots of humour along the way and at the end, we stand with the survivors, while not forgetting those who perished.
Photo credit: Belinda Strodder.