Perhaps “Titanic the Musical” is like “Hamilton,” a show that anyone who cares about the art form will want to see once, but also one that can attract eager visitors.
Although you have had and continue to have regular opportunities to see “Hamilton”, productions of “Titanic” are rare, due to the cost and care required to launch this great ship of a musical.
By bringing back “Titanic” this season, the Milwaukee Repertory Theater is giving newbies and repeat offenders another chance to embark on this exciting journey.
The rep’s re-edited production, which opened Saturday night at the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater, is every bit as compelling and moving as last spring’s performances, with enough differences that it’s not a mere repeat.
A few cast changes give theater nerds something to parse. The charismatic Jeffrey Kringer, as Stoker Barrett, and Cooper Grodin, as designer of the Andrews ship, are both upgrades from their predecessors.
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Director Mark Clements and his cast seem to have subtly sharpened the conflict at the heart of the tragedy. Bullish White Star Line chairman J. Bruce Ismay (Andrew Varela), who wants the Titanic to become a legend, pushes to top speed; Retired captain EJ Smith (David Hess) passively resists while reluctantly welcoming the owner. As a technical resource person, Grodin tries to explain the difference between what’s possible and what’s safe to someone who isn’t listening. Varela’s Ismay may be even more pugnacious this time around, but Grodin’s Andrews, showing his emotional labor on his face, holds his ground, making foul-finding song “The Blame” a more realistic shouting match. .
Like “Hamilton”, “Titanic the Musical” is deeply concerned with the American dream and the class struggle. I love the scene where we meet third class passengers, including many Irish immigrants, three of whom are named Kate! Their modest dreams – to be a maid, a governess, an engineer – lead them to make many sacrifices in their efforts to reach this country. That’s enough for anyone to shed a tear of gratitude for their immigrant ancestors.
Alice (Alex Keiper), the wife of the second-class hardware store owner who keeps sneaking into first class, embodies another side of the American dream: a fascination with the lifestyles of the rich and famous.
Like a beautiful disaster movie, “Titanic the Musical” oscillates between scenes of large groups and intimate close-ups. No scene is more romantic than Ida Straus (Carrie Hitchcock) refusing to let her husband Isidor (Joe Vincent) die alone on the boat.
What may surprise viewers more are the powerful moments of friendship, like the warm bond formed between Kringer’s manly chauffeur and nebbishy telegrapher Bride (Steve Pacek), and kind first-class steward Etches (Matt Daniels). gives to a young hunter (Max Christian Rose).
No one is guaranteed to survive after the Titanic hits the iceberg, but the wealthy first class face tragedy with more resources. Their wives and children are led to the lifeboats, while third-class passengers are left to fend for themselves, many of whom are trapped below. This story’s strongest parallel to the coronavirus pandemic: Low-paid essential workers should stay on the job, serving customers until the end. Etches laments, “All 50 hunters, none over the age of 15, died without a groan.”
Breakthrough cases of COVID-19 forced the rep to cancel 15 performances of “Titanic” last season. For the comeback, Clements and company trained 10 additional swing performers to step in at any time and for any reason. Two starred on opening night: Joe Hornberger as Lightroller and Danny Arnold as Murdoch Substantial. Their integration was seamless; without a poster insert, no one would have known they were substitutes.
Composer Maury Yeston’s cinematic score evokes Elgar and other British music from the Titanic era. Musical director Dan Kazemi’s septet plays with power and grace. Just like last year’s performances, there were times, like the band finale, where my mate and I heard the actors sing but couldn’t make out the lyrics.
If you are going to
The Milwaukee Repertory Theater presents “Titanic the Musical” until October 23 at the Quadracci Powerhouse, 108 E. Wells St. Visit milwaukeerep.com or call (414) 224-9490.