You know the story, and you’ve probably watched the 1997 James Camron film, but have you heard of Titanic the Musical? Having seen the film, I still didn’t know what to expect from this musical adaptation. It could have included a barrage of uplifting songs based on the real passengers of the "unsinkable" 1911 Titanic, offered more special effects than its movie counterpart or included toe-tapping dance numbers to cancel out its sombre ending. Unfortunately, Titanic the Musical is an extremely tasteful enactment of the failed and joyless journey from Southampton to New York City.
Beginning with a musical number that includes how many oranges were aboard the ship (36,000) and ending with a complete list of the names of the deceased, this musical was informative but incredibly gloomy. We follow the passengers as they board the Titanic, walk around the Titanic and are closed off to the travellers in their classes cabins. The class structure would have been an interesting issue to delve into, but the show is fairly shallow regarding how it portrays the working class.
Its working and middle-class passengers focus on how wonderful it would be to be rich and move up the ranks, without having many other personality traits. While they all hope to reach America and chase their dream; the richer passengers have no discernible qualities at all. Their job is to eat around large tables and ask, ‘Are we there yet?’.
The dialogue in between songs mainly keeps focussing on informing the audience on the ships gradual increase in speed and the music and lyrics by Maury Yeston were so simple I couldn’t decipher one song from the next. It was difficult to gather why little creative license is used in a musical. Director Thom Southerland handles a heavy 25-member cast but offers surprisingly little movement on the Lowry stage. Its striking staging has a luminous set that uses blinding lights to capture the water, implants fog into its audience and offers two levels for its actors to perform on. Yet the acting is stilted and dry, with the performers walking and standing in set placements or seated around tables and desks throughout the show.
Writer Peter Stone layers fact spewing accounts but withdraws any elements of drama until the second act. Nevertheless, don't expect the set to fall around the characters as the productions sombre take and logical writing leave little space for theatrics. If characters dance, they dance with purpose. If characters sing an upbeat song, it is for the enjoyment of the other passengers’. Clearly, the five-time Tony award-winning musical has touched more than a selective audience, but the productions hyper-focus on fleshing out facts makes this drama a bore.
As the waves hit the sinking ship, the cast begin the Mexican wave to symbolise the overflow of water in what is an extremely tense portrayal of the tragedy. This production is perfect for audiences who have been waiting for informative, historical theatre. But for others, don’t let the word ‘musical’ fool you. Despite the two levels of staging, the show feels constricted, with cast members bound to certain spots as they rattle off dry dialogue. Its slow and steady pacing offers consistency in its messaging and music, but Titanic the Musical leaves the American dreams to Camron and offers audiences a potent taste of reality.