Theater Review: TITANIC (Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont)

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by Tony Frankel on February 3, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


It’s telling that the 1997 musical Titanic won Tony Awards for each nomination — Best Musical, Peter Stone’s book, Maury Yeston’s score, Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations, and Stewart Laing’s colossal, four-story, tilting set — yet it didn’t receive one nomination for acting. (I saw the original on Broadway and you definitely left humming the set.) The reason for that is clear watching Candlelight Pavilion’s terrific ensemble tackle this show about the doomed 1912 luxury liner which struck an iceberg, killing 1,517: It’s textually flawed — there are no arcs for anyone’s story; there are too many repetitive situations; and some of the songs are oddly impenetrable.

Which is why Candlelight’s triumph is a strange success, even with Chuck Ketter’s traffic-cop direction which, while filling the stage beautifully, loses focus sometimes: It’s odd that a more intimate version of a musical called Titanic can so succeed. Part of the reason is that original cast member Don Stephenson created an ensemble version in 2012, which reduced the behemoth cast to 20, while Jonathan Tunick’s original orchestrations have been updated by Ian Weinberger for six players, which makes Andrew Orbison’s perfect band at Candlelight sound much like the actual ship’s itinerant players.

An inspiring opening introduces us to the passengers, crew, and White Star Line employees, all of whom marvel at the ship (I also marveled at Mr. Ketter’s large and versatile two-story set design, which more than suggests each part of the ship with moving stairways and wonderfully painted roll-drops). The numbers “In Every Age” and “How Did They Build Titanic?” burst with the hubris of an 11-story ship that “even God couldn’t sink,” a “floating city” that turned the usually grueling transatlantic crossing into a fabulous party at 22 knots per hour. Very much a communal work, this swift-moving Titanic surges with ensemble anthems like the ironic “I Must Get on That Ship,” the sickeningly serene ballad “No Moon,” the ragtime romp “Doing the Latest Rag,” and the chaotic counterpoint of “To the Lifeboats.”

But instead of concentrating on one main story (as James Cameron did in his film, which was nearly in the can when the musical arrived), Mr. Stone balances group scenes with cunningly glimpsed, running portraits, each one based on real people. While the disaster itself builds with tension (my heart was fairly racing by the middle of Act II), the book is essentially a series of stereopticon slides in which seafarers act as symbols of their social station, which keeps us emotionally distant. In both music and lyrics, more time is spent on the ship herself and issues around the class system.

The first-class passengers don’t do much more than exude privilege and show amazement at the wonders of the Technological Revolution; second-class status seeker Alice (comically determined Sarah Meals) insists on socializing with the first-class millionaires; and determined, outspoken Kate (lovely and feisty Catie Marron) and others from third class dream of the gold-paved streets in America, and coal-stoking Frederick Barrett (powerful Gregg Hammer) just sings about stoking and class in “Barrett’s Song.”

All the while, Joseph Bruce Ismay (a deliciously unctious Greg Nicholas), managing director of the White Star Line, consistently and irritatingly prods Captain E.J. Smith (Marc Montminy, looking eerily like Titanic’s actual captain) to increase speed as an early arrival in New York will garner better press. One of the final numbers belongs to ship builder Thomas Andrews (Jeffrey Warden), whose eleven o’clock number (the inchoate “Mr. Andrews’ Vision”) tells of the ship’s design flaws (which we already know about) and, you guessed it, class. In that same vein, we already know that Ida Straus (Samantha Wynn Greenstone) and husband Isidor (a sympathetic Jamie Snyder), co-owner of Macy’s department store, are devoted partners, so their sweet late-in-the-show love song, “Still,” seems superfluous more than emotional. Thus, since it’s difficult to stick to anyone’s story, Tony nominators ignored the amazing Broadway cast members.

But you can’t ignore the first-class casting here, and they mostly play multiple roles. The accurate and sumptuous costumes are so many and so swift that the cast does indeed seem doubled, while Michon Gruber-Gonzales’s wigs aid greatly to the illusion. The entire crew really rises to the occasion.

This above all: For those who haven’t been to Claremont’s Candlelight Pavilion in a while, you should know that this estimable outfit has really upped its game with both production values (the season opener Bonnie and Clyde was equally impressive) and customer care — the food is beyond delicious, the service impeccable, the management caring. And it’s all included for ridiculously low prices. I’m champing at the bit to see the ridiculously fun No, No, Nanette when it opens in March.

photos courtesy of Candlelight Pavilion (click on photo for larger version)

Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater
455 West Foothill Blvd in Claremont
meals served before the show begins
doors open on Fri and Sat at 6;
Sun at 5; Sat and Sun at 11
show begins 1:45 after doors open
ends on October 13, 2018
for tickets ($30-$74 includes meal),
call 909.626.1254 x 1 or visit Candlelight

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