By a curious coincidence, 20 years ago — in 1997 — movie theaters saw the arrival of the epic film Titanic and Broadway’s big hit musical was also about the flagship of the White Star Line, the “largest moving object in the world.”
Spoiler alert: In both works, the mammoth ocean liner hits an iceberg on its maiden voyage and sinks. (What, you knew that already?)
But that is about all the two works have in common. James Cameron’s movie concocted a fictional love story and concentrated on the special effects visuals of the ship’s demise. The musical, with a somewhat suspenseful script by Peter Stone and a majestic, symphonic score by Maury Yeston, sticks to the stories of the actual passengers on that doomed vessel.
And for my money, the stage show is a lot more emotionally involving than the mega-successful movie, an impression underscored by the towering, exquisitely sung production by Slow Burn Theatre Company, which opened over the weekend at Fort Lauderdale’s Broward Center.
Titanic is an improbable musical, but just give yourself over to the opening number — 18 minutes of wall-to-wall soaring music known as “The Launching” — and you are likely to be swept up in the show’s audacity. Yeston, who also wrote such unconventional works as Grand Hotel and Nine, keeps pouring out melodies and capturing the real-life characters in song.
Among the best is “Lady’s Maid,” a sprightly anthem for a trio of Irish lasses named Kate trilling about their life plans in America, and “The Proposal/The Night Was Alive,” a counterpoint duet between a love-smitten stoker and a more pragmatic telegraph operator. Once the fate of the ship and its passengers is sealed, Macy’s retailer Isidor Straus (Troy J. Stanley) and his wife Ida (Ann Marie Olson) burst into an operetta-like expression of their mutual devotion (“Still”).
Musical director Emmanuel Schvartzman makes his six-piece orchestra sound larger than it is, but it is his meticulous choral work with the 20-member cast that is most impressive. Director-choreographer Patrick Fitzwater handles the traffic patterns on Sean McClelland’s two-deck set design with assurance. Theatergoers who have seen Titanic on Broadway or on tour may miss the hydraulics that tilt the sinking ship, but Slow Burn is able to convey the peril without such massive mechanics.
Company veteran Matthew Korinko kicks the evening off ably with the prologue “In Every Age,” as the ship’s architect, Thomas Andrews. He is among the culpable, along with impatient ship owner J. Bruce Ismay (Andrew Rodriguez-Triana) and Capt. E.J. Smith (David Hyman), so close to retirement. The three of them handle well the booming dramatic climax of finger-pointing, “The Blame.”
Was it really just seven years ago that Slow Burn debuted with the small-scale Bat Boy in a Boca high school auditorium? Seeing its triumphant Titanic makes us realize that the troupe is up to any challenge it gives itself. Fortunately for the company and for us, there are plenty more such hurdles in the musical theater canon.
TITANIC, THE MUSICAL, Slow Burn Theatre Co., Broward Center Amaturo Theatre, 201 S.W. Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Through Feb. 5. $25-$60. 954-462-0222.