I suppose the oldest aphorism in show business is “The show must go on.” Serenbe Playhouse, nationally famous for their site specific outdoor productions, proved that last Saturday night with “Titanic: The Musical,” now running through August 19 (it’s already been extended).
This dazzling, moving musical play normally plays outdoors with the great ship (a five story, 100 foot-long marvel) sitting on a lake, while the audience of 400 sits on dry land, exactly eye-level with Titanic. You may wonder how such a thing could be constructed. To satisfy your curiosity, I recommend a 15-minute film Serenbe and Trove Studio produced called “Sinking the Titanic: A Documentary.” You can watch it in the video above.
The one thing Brian Clowdus, Serenbe’s intrepid artistic director, and his team cannot control is the weather. It rained on July 14, Saturday night, and the show had to be staged in the Pavillion, a large, covered structure open at the sides. Despite the initial disappointment, there were advantages: The audience was quite close to the actors (who performed in full costume), and intimacy is a wonderful thing in live theatre. In addition, the sound—including the orchestra and singers—was absolutely flawless, almost overwhelming. As the ensemble’s singing swelled in power and emotion, one got goose bumps. Giant kudos right now to music director Chris Brent Davis, and his orchestra.
Perhaps most important were the concentration and commitment of the cast of 40 very talented people. Their brilliance and humanity made the “willing suspension of disbelief” a very easy thing. I may have seen a concert version, but it had fine, assured blocking. And one can never forget that 1500 people lost their lives when Titanic went down in 1912. You may have seen “A Night to Remember,” a fine film. Very few people missed James Cameron’s multi-Oscared 1997 “Titanic.”
The Broadway musical version opened, also in 1997, and swept the Tony Awards, including Best Musical. The music and lyrics are by Maury Yeston; story and book by Peter Stone. The show enjoyed a long run.
And for those of us who didn’t see the usual staging, Adam Koch, Serenbe’s brilliant scenic designer says, “The musical world of the score has (for me) all the information and inspiration about the visuals of the play.” Operatic great Maria Callas used to say that everything you need to know about the characters is in the score, if it’s good. The “Titanic” score is outstanding. Director Clowdus told artsatl.com: “It’s not about the boat sinking. It’s about people on a voyage or quest for joy, hope and change…It always goes back to storytelling.” Mr. Koch and Mr. Clowdus are telling the truth.
The beautiful cast of “Titanic” is in your face, making you laugh, thrilling you, and then breaking your heart. I guess the primary element missing from the production I saw was the full presentation of Bubba Carr’s choreography. So I shall not lie: I plan to revisit the show and see everything. As for you, “Titanic” is a don’t-miss event, a worthy successor to “Hair,” “Oklahoma,” “Evita,” Miss Saigon,” and “Cabaret,” all of which were stellar. Serenbe regulars may have their favorite; I loved them all. The Playhouse has not achieved national recognition for nothing, you know.
Let’s turn to the cast, all 40 of them. This cast is rich and deep in talent and experience; reading the program bios can tell you that. But the proof is in the performance, and they deliver, starting with the ship’s Captain Smith, played superbly by Eric McNaughton. Robert Hindsman plays J. Bruce Ismay, the Director of the White Star Line; he urges the captain to steer the ship faster and faster, to break the trans-Atlantic crossing record, heedless of talk of icebergs fairly close; the wireless telegraph operator (Chase Davidson), at first sending out love letters for passengers, and then, when the iceberg fatally wounds the ship, desperately sending an S.O.S.
Robert Wayne and Lilliangina Quinones are most touching as first class passengers who decide to die together (“Still”), rather than the wife utilize her privilege as a woman to get in one of the precious,
too few, lifeboats. (That’s another story: the class system in which virtually all the first class female passengers were saved; but most of the steerage and Second Class passengers met a watery grave.)
In Third Class there are three charming Irish girls each named Kate: Niki Badua (“Miss Saigon”), Casey Shuler, and India S. Tyree, all of whom dream of the opportunities that await them in America. In fact, many of the passengers are hoping to start new lives in America; they are immigrants, you see. Most don’t make it.
Chase Peacock’s Frederick Barrett is a young man in love; he sings like a dream (“How Did They Build Titanic?”, “Barrett’s Song,” “The Proposal” and others.
Titanic’s designer, Thomas Andrews (Chris Sizemore), starts the evening off with “In Every Age”; his is a fine performance.
I hope you realize that I cannot possibly describe each performance. What I can do is tell you who they are; if ever a cast deserved mention, it is the actors/singers of “Titanic.” They are achingly human, totally committed, and many of them end up in the water every night. This is dedication.
In addition to those already mentioned, the cast includes Erik Abrahamsen, Andrew J. Anderson, Brook Bradley, Emily Budd, Blake Burgess, Erin Burnett, Daniel Burns, Jessica De Maria, Alexandria Duncan, Laine Fletcher, Charles Fowler, Destiny Freeman, Jeremy Gee, Arielle Geller, Cullen Gray, Rosie Gyselinck, Timothy Harland, Asia Howard, Jin Jo, Brian Jordan, Alexandria Joy, Julie Key, Shannon McGarren, Jordan Patrick, Karley Rene, Chris Saltalamacchio, Aaron Schilling, Terence Smith, Ben Thorpe, and Madison Welch.
If I omitted anyone, I offer a thousand mea culpas. Again, the depth of talent and experience these people possess is astonishing. And to hear all their voices raised in song (“In Every Age,” “Finale”) is something you must experience.
As brilliant as director Brian Clowdus is, he did not put this production together by himself. The program mentions many invaluable technical professionals such as costume designer Alan Yeong, lighting designer Kevin Frazier, sound designer Bobby Johnson, and many others.
Finally, Broadway legend Mary Martin wrote in her autobiography that the original cast of “South Pacific” gave a rehearsal preview to industry professionals: actors, dancers, singers, composers, directors. The preview was staged with makeshift props, no scenery, improper lighting. Yet many of these professionals told Mary Martin that that was the greatest performance they’d ever seen in a theatre.
I remembered that when I saw “Titanic” indoors in the Pavillion. I urge you to go and have the total immersion, as it were. This may be Serenbe Playhouse’s finest hour yet.
For tickets and information, visit serenbeplayhouse.com.