Griffin Theatre Company’s TITANIC – Brilliantly Resurrected from the Ship Graveyard

The-company-of-Griffin-Theatre-Company’s-production-of-TITANIC.-Photo-by-Michael-Brosilow.HIGHLY RECOMMENDED: THEATRE IN CHICAGO REVIEW ROUND-UP

REVIEWED BY: JAMES MURRAY

Griffin Theatre Company launches its 2014-15 season with a new, intimate production of Titanic. The original 1997 production earned five Tony awards including Best Musical (it was a lean year for Broadway). With a score by Maury Yeston, book by Peter Stone and new orchestrations by Ian Weinberger this new version is a HUGE improvement over the original and will draw you in at the first number.

Reducing the cast from 46 down to 20 Director Scott Weinstein has created something magical, moving and memorable. When I saw the original production I must admit that I was counting down the minutes until the ship sank for, in the huge theatre I lost the story, didn’t care about the characters and was disappointed with a largely mediocre and forgettable score (which is still the case with some of the songs which are overly long). Titanic is an epic story that needs an intimate space in order to work and make you care.

Much of the credit for Griffin’s production of Titanic goes to director Scott Weinstein. It is apparent from the moment it begins that he is at the helm and has charted a definite course; we know that we are in good hands and he has a clear vision of what he wants us to feel.

When a cast is so greatly reduced and actors are playing a multitude of roles there is the danger of confusing your audience and having it appear that you are doing it on the cheap. In most cases I admit that I am a purist when it comes to redoing an original but in this case Weinstein, Weinburger and Stone have resurrected Titanic from the ocean floor and given us what was lacking in the original; the relationships of the doomed passengers told in a clean, straightforward and no-nonsense way.

Not attempting to shove a “concept” down our throats like some Chicago directors do, Weinstein has simply told the story, simply. He has also assembled a strong group of singers and excellent orchestra giving the illusion it is on the deck of the ship. I always find it amazing how the singers in Titanic can follow an orchestra located behind the set, never look at the monitor and pull of flawlessly a difficult, fugue-like score.

While the ensemble is strong overall there are standout performances. Eric Lindahl’s Thomas Andrews, the architect of the ship, gives a truly heart-rending performance, particularly in his second act soliloquy song “Mr. Andrew’s Vision” as he is going over the plans and realizing his design flaws as the ship is literally sinking with him (a stage effect that is alone worth the price of admission). It is a fiendishly difficult number musically and structurally and Lindhal gets to show his tremendous prowess as an actor and singer.

Emily Grayson’s Ida Strauss is another performance that will move you to tears. She is an exceptionally fine actress and singer and her goodbye scene with her husband Isador Strauss (played with great feeling by Sean Thomas) is one that I will remember as it moved me to tears.

Captain Smith (played beautifully by Peter Vamvakas) is another performance worth highlighting. It is perfect casting by Weinstein on many levels. The only fault I found with his performance is the inconsistency of his RP British dialect which was in and out (the major fault I found with the majority of the dialects and their execution which I hope they will address immediately). The accents are crucial in a story about different classes and ethnic groups of people and flaw an otherwise flawless production. The cast does have a dialect coach but it appears that not much time or focus was spent on getting them correct and consistent.

As I watched Weinstein’s Titanic I was moved by the warmth, love and symbiotic quality of the ensemble as a whole; they make the show and make us care. In the scene when the ship is sinking and the chaos of the people as they realize that many of them will die is heartbreaking. We care about them. When they sing in unison they literally blow the roof off of the small theatre and go straight to your heart.

The Scenic Design by Joe Schermoly is ingenious in its simplicity and execution. It transforms seamlessly into several locations inside and outside of the ship and is a masterful study in the use of a small space to tell a titanic story.

Likewise the Lighting Design by Brandon Wardell, Projection Design by Paul Deziel and Property Design by Jamie Karas are equally strong (even though I would have liked to see nickel silver serving trays and champagne buckets instead of mannered aluminum which is what they would have had. Details!).

Speaking of details I want to give a special shout out to Costume Designer Rachel Sypniewski for the exquisite detail of her design and execution. The shoes and hats of the women are exceptional and transport us to 1912 (there is a great scene where Emily Grayson plays all of the wealthy women entering the ship which is all done through the changing of hats).

Musical Direction by Elizabeth Doran is superb and adds greatly to the overall success of the production. She gets a big sound out of a small orchestra.

In the end it is the sum of all parts that makes this show special. You cannot go through this journey on the doomed Titanic and not come out having experienced a highly emotional and rewarding experience in the theatre. Kudos to Griffin for giving us a jewel of a production! It is a trip worth taking.

Griffin Theatre Company’s TITANIC runs through December 7, 2014 at Theatre Wit. 1229 W Belmont Ave Chicago.