Among one of the best-known disasters in the past one-hundred fifty years is that of the RMS Titanic, the colossal luxury ocean liner that sank on its maiden voyage. The year 1912 itself is often remembered as being “the year the Titanic sank.”
This story has become something of a modern fairy tale due to the 1997 film directed by James Cameron. Unjustly overlooked is the Broadway musical of the same year that was also inspired by the legendary ship’s sinking. “Titanic: The Musical” is being staged through November 12 by the Good Shepherd Players of Burke, Virginia, in a wonderful and moving production directed by Nancy Lavallee.
As the play begins, live orchestral music suggests a rapture ocean waves in an overture reminiscent of Richard Rodgers’ “Victory at Sea.” Edwardian hats and chest-like suitcases serve as effective props to suggest the time period in apparel brilliantly executed by costume designers Donna Sisson and Jennifer Caldwell.
We soon meet a variety of characters, ranging from the wealthy and powerful ship owners and aristocrats, down to the working-class passengers and crew members. Among these are the stories of three third-class passenger Irish girls Claire Aziza, Megan Fisher, and Lizzie Bartlett, all named Kate, who perform as a splendid trio in resonant voices their simple wishes to be a “Lady’s Maid” and thus improve their lot in life.
There is also the upper-class Lady Caroline (Shelby Young), who is eloping to the United States with middle-class husband Charles Clarke (Cristian Bustillos). The two performers duet beautifully and powerfully in the romantic “I Give You My Hand.” There is an elderly couple, Isodor and Isa Strauss (portrayed earnestly by Bill Robinson and Margaret McGarry), who do not want to be separated even in the face of the inescapable sinking of the ship. The ship’s stoker, or coal furnace tender, Frederick Barrett (a wonderfully voiced Shakil Azizi in his “Barrett’s Song”), sends a marriage proposal from the telegraph station on the Titanic.
Also present are the ship’s owner J. Bruce Ismay (Chris Dockins), ship’s builder Thomas Andrews (Chris Gray), and Captain E.J. Smith (Kevin McCormack). There is much talk at first of the marvelous wonders of technology of the twentieth century. Then fate takes its course, and the owner, ship builder, and captain variously blame each other and take the blame for the fate of the Titanic. They are also confronted with even greater ethical choices when they realize that the decisions they make on the sinking ship will determine which guests will live and which will die.
The play, in short, is a thrilling revival of the Titanic tragedy with new life stories recalling the dreams and fates of the passengers of the ill-fated ship. While parts of the play and its music are somber, there are many moments of life as well, embodied by energetic musical numbers such as “The Latest Rag,” replete with 1910s-style ragtime dancing. Choreographer Kathleen McCormack handles such moments well as the ship passengers fluctuate between exuberance and panic. Similarly, the dots and dashes of Morse Code (used for the Titanic’s S-O-S distress signals) are cleverly mimicked to match the rhythm of song. In an experimental touch, set designer Bob Hall has placed the twenty-six musicians of the orchestra in an orchestra pit shaped like the front of a ship.
The show is performed extravagantly and yet with commendable restraint, featuring actors who effectively portray both the hope of new life and new vistas as well as the tragedy of the ship’s sinking. The message of the danger of misplaced faith in human technology remains as relevant in our own time as it was in 1912. The Good Shepherd Church has well-maintained its role as a venue presenting high-quality Broadway fare for the community, a virtual Broadway on Braddock Road!
“Titanic: The Musical” runs through November 12, 2023, at Church of the Good Shepherd, 9350 Braddock Road, Burke, Virginia. For more information, please visit: good-shepherd.net/players/.