Nearly a decade after the musical Titanic docked in New York’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, Arlington’s Signature Theatre brings to the stage a production that is everything the original was not. Although it won the Tony Award for Best Musical, the Broadway production earned lackluster reviews. Nevertheless, Signature’s Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer remained a fan. “I’ve always loved the musical Titanic and I have felt that Signature should reinvent this musical for our audiences in an exciting new way,” he has said. With creative staging, an uber-talented cast, deft direction by Schaeffer, choreography by Matthew Gardiner, and an outstanding 17-piece orchestra (conductor, James Moore, musical coordinator, Jon Kalbfleisch), Signature has given new life to this musical.
Signature’s “ship of dreams,” is a three-story set in the center of the MAX Theatre with metal stairways rising from the stage to the rafters. Paul Tate Depoo III’s innovative scenic design arranges seats on all four sides of the stage so that the audience is never far from the action. While the story is well known – an ocean vessel that was regarded as a technological marvel meets a disastrous fate due to human error – Schaeffer manages to keep the tension high.
Sam Ludwig and Stephen Gregory Smith (Photo by Christopher Mueller)
As the passengers begin to file in, there are looks of amazement on their faces as they glimpse the Titanic’s majesty. In“How Did They Build the Titanic?”, Sam Ludwig as third class passenger Frederick Barrett, runs down the amazing stats for the ship. Forty-six thousand tons of steel/ Eleven stories high! /She’s a great palace, floating… /Quiet as a lullaby There’s no attempt to outdo the lavish sets that dominated James Cameron’s film version. With one crystal and gold chandelier showcasing the ship’s elegance, much is left to the imagination. It works.
Stephen Gregory Smith, Katie McManus (Photo by Colin Hovde)
The social makeup of the cast is on full display thanks to costume design by Frank Labovitz and wig design by Anne Nesmith. We meet the famous names in first class – the Astors (Matt Conner and Jamie Eacker) – as well as those below, like third class, celebrity- obsessed Alice Beane (an amusing performance by Tracy Lynn Olivera). Christopher Bloch plays the captain, who plans to retire after the ship reaches New York. While he’s an experienced navigator, he succumbs to pressure from J. Bruce Ismay (Lawrence Redmond), chairman of the White Star line, which owns the Titanic, to increase the ship’s speed in order to arrive in New York ahead of schedule. That move, of course, would prove to be the first of many mistakes made that doomed both the ship and its passengers.
The cast of Titanic (Photo by Paul Tate DePoo III)
Kevin McAllister conveys military bearing as one of the ship’s officers, going so far as to take responsibility for the ship hitting the iceberg. Christopher Mueller and Sean Burns are touching as young members of the ship’s staff who show incredible courage as they continue to serve the passengers who remain behind. There’s a touching moment in the ballad, “Still,” when Ida Strauss (Florence Lacey) refuses to board the lifeboat, opting to stay behind with her husband, Isidor (John Leslie Wolfe).
Christopher Bloch, Nick Lehan, Lawrence Redmond, and Bobby Smith (Photo by Christopher Mueller)
Bobby Smith, a Signature regular who last dazzled audiences in La Cage aux Folles, plays the ship’s designer, Thomas Andrews. His emotional lament is heartfelt in “Mr. Andrews’ Vision” – Just a cursory look at the blueprints here/ Shows the weaknesses that we have missed/ How the water poured in/A three-hundred-foot gash/And caused the bow to flood and to list.
The special effects that dramatize the sinking and the fate of those who died in the water are simply stunning. Who needs CGI when you have the brilliant minds behind this production?
While there are more than two dozen songs in Titanic, Maury Yeston’s musical score failed to produce even one hit. The strength of the Signature production is the large cast’s impressive vocal talents, on full display in the ensemble numbers at the beginning and, thrillingly, at the end of the show.
Top photo: The cast of Titanic, photo by Colin Hovde
4200 Campbell Avenue
Through January 29, 2017
How is it that the 1963 musical, 110 in the Shade, can still seem so relevant today? The title can’t help but make us think about current concerns with global warming and drought. But it’s the musical’s social messages that are timeless and sure to resonate with audiences both young and old.
Based on the 1954 play, The Rainmaker, by N. Richard Nash, the musical’s bona fides are impressive. Nash wrote the book while the talented team behind The Fantasticks was responsible for the lyrics (Tom Jones) and music (Harvey Schmidt). There have been very few stagings since that time, including a 1992 New York City Opera Revival, a 1999 concert production in London, and the 2007 Broadway revival. So the new production now playing at Ford’s Theatre is not to be missed.
If you are unfamiliar with 110 in the Shade, you’re not alone. In a press release, Marcia Milgrom Dodge, said that she had no knowledge of the show when she was approached by Ford’s Theatre Director Paul R. Tetreault to be the production’s choreographer and director. She quickly fell in love with the story, which features a formidable woman at the center, and the music, which ranges from “sweeping Americana sound,” to “heartfelt melodies.” But it was the musical’s themes that really excited her. “The show makes two points about dreams: we can’t live entirely in them, but we can’t live a hopeful life without them,” she said. “110 in the Shade is a hopeful story, and we need that now.”
Dodge signed on and her deft hand is visible throughout this terrific production. The choreography is exuberant, whether we are watching the entire cast dance a hoe-down, or a love-struck couple (Jimmy played by Gregory Maheu and Snookie, played by Bridget Riley), execute a Texas-style pas de deux. There’s never a lag in the action, something critical in a musical that clocks in at more than two and a half hours.
The setting is a small rain-starved Texas town in the 1950s. Everything on stage, including the water tower, seems brown and dusty. While townspeople enter to fill pitchers and buckets with their daily water rations, the sheriff, File (Kevin McAllister), belts out the obvious: “Gonna Be Another Hot Day.” McAllister’s stage presence and booming baritone/bass voice sets the tone. McAllister, who brought us to tears when he sang “Father, How Long?” in Ford’s Theatre’s production of Freedom’s Song, continues to excite us with his performances.
McAllister’s File manages a strong presence to the people he’s sworn to protect. Yet maintaining that facade takes its toll. He calls himself a widower, even though the whole town knows his wife ran off with another man. Rancher H.C. Curry (Christopher Bloch) hopes that File will marry his daughter, Lizzie (Tracy Lynn Olivera), who has arrived home after she failed to find a husband while staying with friends in neighboring Sweetwater. H.C. and his two sons, Jimmy (Maheu) and Noah (Stephen Gregory Smith), invite File to the annual picnic so that Lizzie can impress him with her fancy dress and tasty picnic basket. Lizzie is reluctant to attend, but gives in singing “Love Don’t Turn Away.” File, however, is a no show.
Seen through a contemporary lens, Lizzie’s treatment by her family, if not outright abuse, is certainly psychologically damaging. She’s constantly put down, particularly by Noah, for being “plain,” and unable to attract a man. In a humorous exchange, Jimmy, who is taunted for being dumb, tries to give Lizzie pointers for flirting with a man, using some of Snookie’s come-ons as examples. Lizzie’s self esteem may be suffering, but she sticks to her game plan to attract the right kind of husband. “I want him to stand up straight, and I want to be able to stand up straight to him,” she says.
Lizzie’s world is jolted when a stranger named Starbuck arrives in his carnival-like trailer promising to bring rain – for a price. While townspeople quickly fall under Starbuck’s spell – including H.C. who forks over $100 to bring about the rain – Lizzie quickly sizes up the new arrival as a con man. Lizzie, however, has met her match. Starbuck confronts Lizzie with her fears about not being pretty or even feeling like a woman and his observations hit home. As Starbuck, Ben Crawford is so athletic and acrobatic (at one point he slithers on the floor), we wonder if he’s spent time with Cirque de Soleil. Besides having some of the best dance moves this side of Magic Mike, he can act, his scenes with Olivera crackling with sexual tension.
I could listen to Tracy Lynn Olivera sing the phone book (or what passes for the phone book these days). Fortunately, she’s given fabulous material to work with here and she gives it her all. While she can certainly belt out a song (“Raunchy”), it’s the love ballads in the second act that stop our hearts. When she comes to the realization that yes, she is beautiful, seeing that beauty reflected in Starbuck’s eyes, that flood of emotion comes through in song.
In the end, Lizzie is left to choose between File and Starbuck. Will she stay with the stable File or agree to travel around the country with Starbuck? No matter which man Lizzie chooses, she’s now a changed woman and will go into this marriage believing in herself without being held hostage by other people’s opinions.
Photos by Carol Rosegg
110 in the Shade
511 Tenth Street, NW
Through May 14, 2016