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A Night to Forget 

I sink, therefore I am

Wednesday, Jan 20 1999
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Photo by Joan MarcusThe voyage of the Titanic is one of those majestic tragedies that stir such awe and melancholy in the Western soul that their hold over the popular imagination never slackens. To locate in fiction a fateful journey of equivalent power, one must turn to classics of gothic horror and existential adventure, and then combine Jonathan Harker's carriage ride to Castle Dracula with Charlie Marlow's search through the Congo for Mr. Kurtz. As an entertainment franchise, the Titanic disaster is a win-win proposition, a fable that scratches our itch for morality tales about obscene extravagance, class prejudice, technological hubris, sacrifice and cowardice. And yet, despite all these ingredients, Titanic the musical is as calm and flat as the icy waters that swallowed the ship itself.

To be fair, this Tony-laden spectacle, which opened on Broadway in 1997 and now appears at the Ahmanson Theater, is far more appealing than the blockbuster film that followed it later that year. While James Cameron's simplistic melodrama proved a mere pretext for the film's pricey special effects, at least the Peter Stone­Maury Yeston stage version keeps its people and its stagecraft in proper proportion. Because of this, the musical maintains a warmth and sincerity entirely lacking in the film.

On the other hand, there is nothing crazily innovative about the Stone-Yeston production. With dreary predictability, book writer Stone begins at the beginning -- the Belfast docks where the ship was built -- then moves to Southampton, from which the Titanic departs on its maiden voyage toward the rendezvous with that iceberg. You'd think that for just once a Titanic story could start elsewhere -- at the moment of impact, say, or aboard the rescue ship Carpathia, or even on the morgue boat MacKay-Bennett -- and work backward in time. But Stone is content to autopilot his narrative from point A to point Z, treating the ship, as have all his predecessors, as a floating Grand Hotel.

Likewise, most of the legends concerning Titanic's passengers remain intact: Ida Straus (Taina Elg) refusing to leave her husband, Isidor (S. Marc Jordan), for the safety of a lifeboat; short shrift for the steerage passengers during evacuation; the remorse of Thomas Andrews (Kevin Gray), the ship's builder, once the iceberg has all too vividly demonstrated the vessel's design shortcomings; et cetera. The only truly interesting choices on view are how the real-life characters fare under Stone's pen. First Officer Murdoch (David Pittu), while not re-interpreted here as the bribe-taking suicide he was in Cameron's film, is not exactly a man of iron nerve, either; White Star Line director J. Bruce Ismay (ever an easy corporate villain, played here by Adam Heller) is imperious and weaselly as he eggs on the captain to imprudently speed up the ship for publicity purposes, although it is Captain E.J. Smith's (William Parry) reputation that gets the biggest working over: Stone casts him not as a heroic mariner but as a slightly arrogant patriarch who is also a too-pliant company man.

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Stone is not a writer to let a historical event become cheapened by fictional subplots; he chooses instead to make the sinking the play. (At first we think we spy a romance on the horizon between a young Irish couple, but that soon gets lost.) While this single-mindedness is no boon to the cast, the 43 actors nevertheless turn in uniformly fine and well-sung performances under Richard Jones' clockwork direction. Their characters, who could easily have been lost within the large ensemble, are lent depth by Stewart Laing's intelligently designed costumes, which, among other things, playfully clash the Oriental motifs of first-class women's gowns with the argyles of the second-class voyagers.

Titanic's biggest draw -- our universal familiarity with the story -- also happens to be its biggest drawback. Such familiarity does not necessarily breed contempt in theater, but it does tend to produce annoyingly self-referential dialogue. Loaded talk about the ship's unsinkability, Captain Smith's emphasis that this will be his last voyage and Ismay's insistence that the ship's maiden cruise create a legend only prove that when details of a tragedy are already known to the audience before it sits down, all prologue to the climax can only be ironic, and never suspenseful.

Unfortunately, Yeston's music and lyrics leave something to be desired as well. Titanic's score settles for a generic up-with-people sound that can barely sustain its banal lyrics. The steerage passengers' paean to New World opportunities, "Lady's Maid," is positively corn on the cob:

 

I want a shop to call my own

Call my own in America

In America it's better I am told . . .

Oh, far beyond the northern sea

A new life can unfold

 

If we suspect we've heard these sentiments before and more tartly stated, it's because we have -- in West Side Story's "America" -- although in Titanic the Sondheim line "I know what boat you can get on" would assume an entirely different meaning.

If there are no flashes of wit streaking Maury Yeston's lyrics, neither are there compensations in Laing's minimalist set. Where scrims and projections could have created more depth for the staging area, Laing opts for suggestive gangplanks, a crow's-nest and cabin doors -- touches that never quite impress. The closest we come to what could legitimately be called coups de théâtre are when a serving cart slowly rolls across the stage (on Broadway it was a piano) and during the ship's death throes, when the cast scurries to the end of its sharply tilting stern. No one, after all, but a person numb to human feeling could help being moved by the tragedy this scene evokes.

There is no single reason for the Titanic's continued grip on our collective imagination. It's not the scale of the disaster -- how many films have been made about the Philippine ferry that sank in 1987 with a loss of 1,500 lives? Nor is it -- to put it bluntly -- because so many white people perished. (Even most of the Titanic's passengers had probably forgotten the fire and sinking of the General Slocum, in New York's East River, at a cost of more than a thousand lives, in 1904.) But insofar as a century can be said to have optimism, the Titanic's sinking marked the end of the West's boundless faith in technology, and the beginning of the end of Anglo-Saxon myths about the West's natural superiority.

Perhaps at this point in time, when we've lost sight of the Titanic's metaphorical importance, a literal retelling of this tragedy is no longer tenable. That is why a work like Gavin Bryars' ghostly postmodern symphony, The Sinking of the Titanic, with its recurring fragments of voices, period music and groaning sound effects, touches us more deeply than albums of film and stage soundtracks inspired by the same event. The difference between listening to Bryar's work and hearing Titanic's score -- or the insipid theme song from James Cameron's movie -- is the difference between art and entertainment, between dreaming and chewing gum.

TITANIC: A New Musical Story and book by PETER STONE Music and lyrics by MAURY YESTON At the AHMANSON THEATER 135 N. Grand St. Through February 28

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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