The ocean liner Titanic was one of the most ambitious undertakings of its time. Some of America and Europe's most wealthy and famous citizens — as well as many of far humbler station — staked their lives on human ingenuity during the maiden voyage of this "unsinkable" vessel.
The 1997 musical Titanic (not to be confused with the movie from the same year) is an effort of appropriate scale, if not equal magnitude. At the Broadway Theatre of Pitman, a cast of 25 players fill 60 roles and in grand style capture the spirit of courage and optimism that filled the ship in 1912.
While the Gloucester County production doesn't dazzle with the three-story, sinking set of the original New York staging, that is its only drawback. Composer and lyricist Maury Yeston packed the musical with choral numbers, many segregating the singers by their class or position on the ship.
Characters include historical figures (John Jacob Astor IV, Benjamin Guggenheim, George and Eleanor Widener) as well as a mix of crew and third-class passengers, some real and some fictional (White Star Line managing director J. Bruce Ismay and some invented Irish immigrant girls, all named Kate). Peter Stone's book portrays real, imagined, and alleged events from the sinking (such as Ismay's rumored contribution to the crash).
John Stephan's direction unites these disparate personalities through the dreams, ambitions, and hopes of a more optimistic era. The strident singing powers through Act 1's wondrous ensemble song "Godspeed Titanic," the somber "Hymn" that precedes the disaster, and the reflective "In Every Age" that caps Act 2.
Jack Hill leads a 12-piece orchestra through the symphonic score, which contains a few solo numbers to anchor the subplots. Steve McMahon, Andrew Jarema, and DJ Hedgepath deliver heartfelt reminders of men and their lives lost as Thomas Andrews (the ship designer), band leader Wallace Hartley, and telegraph operator Harold Bride, respectively. Costume designer Beth Hillebrecht has created a virtual museum of pieces denoting class, station, and employment, adding opulence and charm to this outstanding production.
Kierkegaard once argued that "the most painful state of being is remembering the future, particularly the one you'll never have." Not here. In Titanic, we glimpse about 50 of the 1,500 lives lost, and while the musical depicts a tragedy, what shines through is the human striving that built the doomed vessel, ferried it forth with dreams and music, and did not let the hope of a better world go down with the ship.