Onto the fairly small Theater Wit stage, Griffin launches its ‘ship of dreams.‘ The size of the theater works perfectly to connect the audience to the emotionality of the tragic sinking. From each person’s appearance on the gangplank, Director Scott Weinstein uses his superb ensemble to pull us into their individual story and collective saga. Upon arrival, each cast member reacts to the grandiosity of the Titanic. They gape and gawk and drool over this miracle ship that is just beyond the audience’s right shoulder.
Watching the shining faces radiating amazement, I almost look over my shoulder to see this phantom ship. But I don’t need to do that because I see the Titanic in their faces. Their grins and expectations are enormous. The hope is chokingly palpable. The maiden voyage is ready to set sail. And with the benefit of hindsight, I blink back spontaneous tears. I’m already sentimentally invested in these poor souls and the ship hasn’t even left the dock.
Everything about this production is big; the ship, the cast, the sound. Under the musical direction of Elizabeth Doran, the singing is sensational. And when the entire ensemble harmonizes, the audience is enveloped in this perfect stereo-surround-sound. The intimate space is ideal for this show. We experience the thrill, the classism, the incrimination, the disaster as if we are one deckchair from it.
Weinstein masterfully executes the action on Designer Joe Schermoly’s streamlined set. The staircases in Schermoly’s nautical framework move to transport the drama from The Bridge to The Grand Salon. The efficiency and starkness of the set keeps Weinstein’s tempo brisk and the focus on the characters. During “The First Class Roster” number, the versatile Emily Grayson is cleverly and quickly introduced as multiple characters with a hat and pose change. Later, the effervescent Neala Barron (Alice) is chased by the delightfully pompous John Keating (Etches). As Barron continuously tries to join in the first class merriment, Keating firmly and smugly redirects her back to her second class designation. The hilarious Keating brings regular comedy relief to this historical catastrophe. Towards the fateful end, he dutifully declines having a drink with Ida and Isador Strauss (played by Grayson and Sean Thomas). The moment is both funny and heart-wrenching.
Within a tight just over two hour run, Weinstein continuously pulls at our heart strings with love and loss. There is romance a float. The elopers, Matt Edmonds (Charles) and Laura McClain (Caroline), lovingly plan their future in the beautiful duet “I give you my hand.” And the established couple of forty years, Grayson and Thomas, sing a soulful and memorable “Still.” And somewhere in-between, the hopeful romantics, Justin Adair (Barnett) and Royen Kent (Bride) playfully send a proposal over the wire. These are just a few of the tender moments that endear the audience to these characters’ lives. We know these people. We want them to achieve happiness. So, when the boat hits the iceberg, we all feel the tragedy on a personal level.
In the first act, Weinstein makes us care. In the second act, Weinstein slaps us with the stinging reality. He showcases the indignation of pajama-clad rich people. (Huge shout out to costume designer Rachel Sypniewski for stunning finery). And with the slight movement of a tea cart, their annoyance turns to controlled panic. Over in third class, the uproar is more vocal and tumultuous as the Irish refuse to go down submissively with the ship. Weinstein wheels the staircases out to the middle of the stage and then has his cast run up them only to stop abruptly with no place to go. The visual is poignant both literally and symbolically. In the most unforgettable scene, Weinstein orchestrates bedlam as survivors are ripped from their loved ones’ gripping embrace to board a lifeboat. Later, he slows the pace to hoist chairs in the air in a disquieting scene among the doomed. Over and over, the resilience and resignation of humanity is heart-swelling and tear-inducing.
TITANIC is a must-see! Griffin Theatre knows how to memorably and passionately sink a ship. Brilliantly epic!
Running Time: Two hours and ten minutes includes an intermission
At Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont
Music and lyrics by Maury Weston
Book by Peter Stone
New orchestrations by Ian Weinberger
Directed by Scott Weinstein
Music direction by Elizabeth Doran
Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 7:30pm
Sundays at 3pm
Thru December 7th
Buy Tickets at www.theaterwit.com
Production photo courtesy of Michael Brosilow
For more reviews and information on Chicago theatre, visit Theatre In Chicago.