‘Titanic’ more than just spectacle

By Milan Paurich

The roles are ‘perfectly cast,’ making the characters more believable.

YOUNGSTOWN — Sometimes bigger is indeed better. With a cast of 65 featured performers, a 24-piece orchestra and more set changes and glitzy period costumes than most community theaters see in an entire season, “Titanic” is as much of a blockbuster as any of the summer movies currently barnstorming area multiplexes. If there was any doubt that audiences were indeed ready to “go back to Titanic,” the capacity crowd at the Youngstown Playhouse on Friday night quickly dispelled those legitimate concerns with a thunderous — and well-deserved — standing ovation.

Maury Yeston (“Nine”) and Peter Stone’s Tony Award-winning 1997 musical has nothing to do with that same year’s “Titanic” movie (talk about your blockbusters!), so don’t go in expecting to see the story of star-crossed lovers Jack and Rose played out against a backdrop of easy-listening Celine Dion songs.

Instead, Stone’s script hearkens back to Walter Lord’s 1955 book “Night to Remember,” which recounted the true-life story of the 1912 oceanic disaster. The characters are based on real people (including Youngstown Sheet and Tube founder George D. Wick), Yeston’s gorgeous score is more operatic than pop and the “special effects” aren’t reliant on CGI trickery (the ship’s sinking is merely “suggested” by an artfully angled deck in Act Two). Got that?

Directed by John D. Holt, “Titanic” is further proof that nobody does musical theater in the Valley better than the Playhouse’s Managing Director. Never one to shy away from a challenge — in fact, he seems to thrive on continually raising the bar — Holt refuses to think “small.” Fortunately, his ambition is once again rewarded by a level of prodigious achievement that dwarfs every other local stage production I’ve seen this season.

And while Holt remains as close to an “auteur” director (i.e., someone whose taste, intelligence and stylistic stamp is evident in every show he personally supervises) as anyone this side of Hal Prince, “Titanic” — like Holt’s “Sweeney Todd,” “The Secret Garden” and “Jekyll and Hyde” before them — is very much a collaborative triumph.

Certainly Playhouse Musical Director Michael Moritz is a major contributor to the show’s brilliance. Not only does Moritz conduct Yeston’s lilting, elegaic wall-to-wall score, but he even plays a supporting role (and sings — very nicely, thank you) as the ship’s bandmaster, William Hartley. Unlike some other area community theaters where scenic and lighting design often seem like an afterthought that doesn’t require any particular skill or effort, Jim Lybarger and Ellen Licitra continue to impress with their unstinting professionalism and artistry. Licitra, in particular, deserves every award there is. Her dramatic lighting effects add mightily to the show’s seismic impact, particularly in Act Two’s “In Every Age.”

Holt’s genius can be found in the show’s details. Every role, no matter how small, is perfectly cast, making it easy to buy the “reality” of these characters’ lives. Plus, he instinctively knows that, if you’re going to do a musical, it helps if your actors can at least carry a note. While there were some minor missteps on opening night (a botched accent, an occasionally stiff line reading, a note that doesn’t soar quite as high as you’d like, intermittent miking gaffes), the audience is so — no pun intended — swept up in the music, drama and romance of the unfolding spectacle that only a stickler (or a professional reviewer like yours truly) would even notice.

Because “Titanic” is an ensemble piece in the truest sense of the word, singling out individual performances can be a bit of a challenge. The closest thing to “lead” roles are the ship’s captain, E.J. Smith (Tim McGinley, superb); owner, J. Bruce Ismay (Jack Burford, slightly overselling the character’s pigheadedness); and chief architect, Thomas Andrews (Alan McCreary, stronger in Act Two than he is at the beginning). But it’s the vignettes — character snapshots, really — that truly carry the evening.

Former “Batboy: The Musical” star Shawn Lockaton delivers another stellar turn as lovesick coal stoker Frederick Barrett. Lockaton has the lion’s share of solo numbers here, and he knocks every one of them (“The Proposal,” “Barrett’s Song,” “We’ll Meet Tomorrow”) out of the park. Bravo!

Also terrific are Brandy Johanntges and David El’Hatton as a pair of Irish immigrants who fall in love while making the perilous journey in the ship’s lowly third-class section; Brian Lee (senior steward Etches); Cyndi Weichey and Tom O’Donnell (a frisky Indiana housewife and her hardware store owner husband); Denny Villa (radioman Bride); and local theater legends Sis Soller and Joseph Scarvell (Macy’s department store magnates Isidor and Ida Strauss) whose touching duet, “Still,” brought down the house.

Breezing in at the end of Act One, the divine Stephanie Holt delivers an electric jolt of energy as nascent feminist Charlotte Cardoza, and John Cox cuts such an imposing figure as millionaire George Widener that he doesn’t have to do much of anything to have the audience eating out of his hand. Now that’s star quality — and the mark of a superb director. (Coincidentally, Cox also served as Holt’s assistant director on the project.)

Even though “Titanic” is being sold as a grand theatrical spectacle with all of the bells-and-whistles that the (simulated) sinking of an ocean liner entails, what’s most striking is the almost hushed level of intimacy that Holt and company bring to the show. It’s a chamber piece disguised as an extravaganza, and all the more satisfying because of that.

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