"Absolutely first class!".
Stoke Repertory Theatre is host to Newcastle Operatic’s production of Titanic The Musical this week. Created by Maury Yeston and Peter Stone, this production, with its unforgettable score, won five Tony Awards when it first opened on Broadway in 1997. The iconic 1998 Cameron/Horner movie and the 1958 Negulesco versions of the maiden (and last) voyage of The Titanic cruise ship, were both set around a fictional love story (as if the tragic sinking of such a vessel wasn’t enough!) yet this musical stage version sticks mainly to the facts. It is portrayed respectfully, and with great care, and mainly focuses on the injustice of the class system of the time along with the passionate misjudgements and reckless decisions of those in charge that lead to the avoidable event and death of 1500 men, women and children. The dreams and aspirations of the passengers are highlighted in text and song and individual stories are told – from Irish emigrants in third class to second class passengers dreaming of being in the shoes of the upper classes, and all as warnings about an imminent giant iceberg are ignored and the dangers quietly dismissed in the hope of reaching America sooner than expected by sailing at full throttle.
Directed by James Freeman, a full cast of of 34 performed. The simple, clever set structure created a ship’s deck, rooms and walkways, with two levels and a balcony, all constructed on a revolving stage. The team demonstrated great use of the space - we were taken into a silver service dining room, the Captain’s office, third-class quarters and even a steamy boiler room. The two full-width screens, up and down stage, gave the show that extra creative arm and imagery was used wisely to enhance emotion and create extra depth and scope as required.
The 1912 costumes were glorious, from first class silk finery to black-gang stokers’ workwear. Wigs, fascinators and ballgowns sparkled, gentlemen in black tie played cards and smoked cigars and the crew of The White Star Line were clad in service dress. The actors were convincing and the singing was just out of this world. The show, musically directed by Allison Fisher, with an excellent off-stage orchestra, was bordering on operatic in style with Sondheim-esque similarities and the show featured some very complex vocal arrangements, harmonies and counter melodies that only a very competent MD who knows exactly what they are doing would take on. And this was clearly the case.
Overall, this was a dedicated undertaking, with the story building slowly and the characters winning sympathy even before the ‘iceberg’ word was mentioned. I was curious to see what effects, if any, would be used for the sinking of the ship and the illusion of the ship going up as the lifeboat was lowered was engaging.
Fabulous lighting, sound design and effects; a few headset crackles were soon remedied and didn’t distract and scene changes were quickly and stealthily executed by a proficient back-stage team.
It is very tricky to mention any particular performer when such a large, competent and talented cast is in charge of your entertainment, but I was drawn to the strong stage presence of Gareth Lee Ridge as Fred Barrett and the superb singing voice of Oliver Joseph Davies as Ismay. Matthew Murray as the Bellboy bought lots of enthusiastic energy and expression to the stage and Mike Johnson as Captain Smith was excellently cast and played the part just as one would expect.
Everyone in the Society should be congratulated for this huge production, which is most decidedly a resounding success. Absolutely first class!
Runs to 27 October
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