Into the Depths of UDSS’s TITANIC!

by Paul Recupero

If you’ve never seen TITANIC: THE MUSICAL, I’ll give you a heads-up. It’s not a historical fiction based love story like the 1997 film, nor is it a detailed timeline of the tragedy like Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember. Instead, it’s a surreal, emotional experience that focuses primarily on the various personalities (passengers and crew) aboard the doomed luxury liner when it struck an iceberg and sank into the North Atlantic in 1912. It’s an ensemble show in the truest sense of the phrase, with hundreds of character interactions as the plot progresses.

TITANIC actors include left to right: Christopher Monaco of Wallingford as Thomas Andrews, Jared Paxson of Upper Darby as J. Bruce Ismay, and Jeff Dietzler of Linwood as Captain E.J. Smith. (Photo credit: Cate Paxson)

Once again, Upper Darby Summer Stage thoroughly impresses on every level. I’ll start with the production elements. The dark and moody two-story set (designed by Lindsey Mayer) is not what you would expect, and I loved every bit of it. Its appearance has more in common with the present-day Titanic wreck than the once prodigal son of the White Star Line. Mobile scaffolding and staircases allow fluid transition between the scenes, and their different orientations creatively form the boat deck, first class dining room, and even the crow’s nest, when needed.

The lighting design by Shelley Hicklin is appropriately eerie. The costumes (designed by Mary Folino) are suitably vibrant for the first class, impoverished for the third class, and polished for the crew. The unseen orchestra under the direction of Gina Giachero is tremendous and seldom overpowered the vocals. On that note…the vocal quality UDSS presents is astonishing, both in ensemble form and in the plentiful solos (i.e. powerful tenor Kevin Toniazzo-Naughton, who plays headstrong stoker Barrett). Well-balanced harmonies round out the beautifully haunting score.

Under the smart direction of Marcus Stevens, the actors themselves (over seventy in all) have crafted diverse and well-defined characters. Last summer I was amazed with the level of talent in UDSS’s ensemble for West Side Story, and TITANIC continues the trend. The fact that these are all young performers makes everything that much more incredible.

There are so many wonderful performances that I can’t possibly name them all, but I particularly enjoyed Jackie Serratore as aspiring socialite Alice Beane, and Kevin Dietzler as tightly-wound chief steward Henry Etches. Overall, the character interactions were both subtle and strong when needed, such as the growing power struggle between Captain Smith (Jeffrey Dietzler) and White Star Line owner Bruce Ismay (Jared Paxson).

Stevens keeps the cast’s blocking varied and interesting, and the pacing is tight. This typically long production runs less than two and a half hours (take that, James Cameron!) Stevens inserted some of his own creative choices, and I liked them all (with one notable exception, discussed below). The stateroom sequence and the ultimate storming of the boat deck were especially well laid out.

And now I get to what to what didn’t work for me. Stevens chose to add three silent “Greek Fates” to the cast. These disturbing and malevolent figures literally rise from the fathoms at the top of the show, dressed in shambles and circling like the witches from Macbeth. Three talented young women perform the creepy roles admirably, with jerky motions and engaging choreography. In fact, they are the most interesting roles in the show…which leads to the problem.

The Fates appear in nearly every scene (featured so prominently that they took the final bow), continuously moving quietly among the other characters, unnoticed by everyone except ship builder Thomas Andrews (a solid Chris Monaco), which was somewhat unclear. Due to their ragged costumes and scary demeanor, they naturally stole focus, often upstaging the speaking roles and occasionally some very nice solos. They looked particularly out of place in the more upbeat songs, such as the opening ensemble number. I understand Stevens’ intent in adding them to foreshadow the demise of certain characters and the legendary ship itself, and I appreciate that he took a bold risk, but I would have used them much more sparingly.

Regardless, TITANIC is a uniquely powerful production, and I urge anyone who has the slightest interest in the story, in musicals, or in supporting young talent to reserve their tickets before this ship has sailed.

Music and Lyrics by Maury Yeston
Book by Peter Stone
Directed by Marcus Stevens
July 29 – August 6, 2011
Upper Darby Summer Stage
at Upper Darby Performing Arts Center
601 N. Lansdowne Avenue
Drexel Hill, PA

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