Mirvish presents Titanic The Musical featuring Canadian tenor Ben Heppner in Toronto
The sinking of the ocean liner RMS Titanic on April 15, 1912 during its maiden voyage is an ambitious subject for a musical. You have to wonder if the most infamous nautical disaster in history can be treated in a meaningful way through song and dance.
First of all, Titanic The Musical is not an adaptation of the James Cameron film Titanic; there’s no Jack and Rose, and Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On does not feature in the score. Originally opened on Broadway in the spring of 1997, a few months in advance of the blockbuster movie, Titanic The Musical is an original work by composer Maury Yeston with book by Peter Stone. The musical has always been a bit uneven and the version currently on stage in Toronto is a mixed bag; I enjoyed parts of it immensely but I thought other aspects fell short.
While the original Broadway version of the show was a high-budget, big production mega-musical, the current Toronto production is a great deal more modest. The show currently on stage at the Princess of Wales Theatre comes from a recent revival in London directed by Thom Southerland and features a smaller cast and a “unit set” which serves as several different settings with only minor changes between scenes.
The production relies on musical staging and choreography rather than physical sets and effects. While I thought this choice mostly worked well, at times the production does feel a little pared-down; the moment where the ship sinks is achieved by a simple stage effect that feels a little anticlimactic.
The most egregious sacrifice was made to the orchestra. The score for a musical about what was once “the world’s largest moving object” is now played by an orchestra you could easily fit inside a mid-sized SUV. The reduced “chamber” arrangement of the score features a string quartet and percussionist, with the rest of the orchestration filled in by a synthesizer. I found the skimpy orchestra disappointing for such a lavish score.
Titanic The Musical starts off with a glorious opening number; Ismay the chairman of the White Star Line (Simon Green) sings of mankind’s most wondrous achievements through the ages as passengers board the Titanic for its maiden voyage.
It’s a textbook musical theatre opening that sets the tone for the show while also introducing the audience to over a dozen characters and allowing each to convey their driving motivation. Director Thom Southerland has performers moving up and down the aisles of the auditorium to create a sense of buzz and energy. As the ship launches to the ensemble singing Godspeed Titanic the excitement is palpable. The execution of that opening scene is damn-near perfect.
However, the rest of the show never quite lives up to the lofty expectations laid out in the masterful opening.
The show bites off a lot of material to chew and is densely packed with the narratives of several characters. None of the characters are given more than a cursory, one-dimensional treatment. There’s an underlying theme about class struggle that’s never really explored in much depth and the many parallel storylines result in a show that feels long especially in the pre-iceberg first act.
Yeston’s score relies on sweeping music to create dramatic moments and brims with heady emotion throughout. Various couples proclaim their love through song and even simple acts like sending a telegraph seem to warrant a lengthy number. The largely UK-based cast is wonderful, their consistently strong performances really elevate the material and they especially shine in the brilliant ensemble vocal numbers.
Superstar Canadian tenor Ben Heppner who recently-retired from the opera stage, is an addition to the cast for the Toronto run but for someone who received such prominent billing, Heppner is underused. His character Isidor Straus, co-owner of Macy’s department store, is at best a bit-part in the show. However, Straus’ duet with his wife Ida (Judith Street), who refused to leave her husband behind on the sinking ship, is easily the emotional highlight of the show.
Though the production and orchestrations are pared down and the story crams in more characters than it could ever hope to fully develop, the bold, sweeping and emotional score performed by an immensely talented ensemble make Titanic The Musical a worthwhile watch.
- Titanic The Musical is playing at the Princess of Wales Theatre (300 King Street West) through June 21, 2015
- Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8:00 p.m. and Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.
- Tickets $35.00 to $130.00
- Tickets are available by phone at 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333, in-person at the Princes of Wales Theatre box office or online at Mirvish.com
Photo of the cast of Titanic the Musical by Cylla von Tiedemann