SPOILER ALERT: The ship sinks. (Sorry).
The curtain comes up, and a single ballet dancer flits out onto the stage. The orchestra plays brightly. Birds sing, twigs pop, people go about picnics. Watching from your seat, you can’t help but contrast this against an end that – because you were once in elementary school and are somewhat aware of significant historical events – you know is coming. The majority of the people on board the ship are going to drown and/or freeze to death, which means that the majority of the characters in this play are going to die.
ACU’s Homecoming musical, Titanic, does a lovely job of diverting your attention from this morbid, imminent end long enough to let you invest in the fiction of the play and its people.
The play never focuses on any single character and lacks a clear protagonist. Instead, director Dawne Swearingen Churchville has molded the individuals into a whole – giving the conglomeration of the ship’s passengers and crew a single, multi faceted personality. This snapshot approach to individual characters allows each actor to contribute vibrant life and individual personality traits.
Grant Scott and Carlee Cagle perform excellently as the couple struggling with class issues. Scott’s huffing and puffing produces the image of a man uncomfortable with the finer things in life, while Cagle blesses the audience with her powerhouse vocals in songs that explore a longing for status and subsequent frustrations when those wishes are not fulfilled.
Erick Carter plays the ship’s designer, Thomas Andrews. Over the course of the musical, he makes an emotional journey from pride in his personal Tower of Babel; to doubt as water floods the engines; to futile mania as he stands on the sinking ship, noticing mistakes in his blueprints and planning how to fix them; and finally to pure, aching regret and mourning as he slides off into the ocean.
Payton Jones and Josh Tumblin play the most compelling romantic couple in the musical as Kate McGowan and Jim Farrell. Sporting dirty Irish brogues, they sweetly banter back and forth about marriage and other crucial life decisions. Jones is given a few moments where her signature vibrato shines, and she briefly steals the show.
Blake Rogers gives what might be the best performance of the show as Barrett the stoker. His solo in, “Barrett’s Song,” explores several of the themes left untouched by the rest of the people on the ship: the utter lack of meaning in material things when death is looming, the easy decadence of the upper class compared to the forced squalor of the lower class, and so on.
Rogers stars in the most visually arresting scene as well. Near the beginning of the musical, he sings his heart out in the boiler room while trying to urge more speed out of the already taxed ship. The boiler room consists of three enormous furnaces – giant metallic set pieces fixed with flickering orange lights at their centers. The whole scene is eerie and reminiscent of something like the workers’ city out of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
Other great individual performances include Peter Hargrave as the stoic and fatherly Captain E.J. Smith, Jefferson Ferguson as the terribly insistent J. Bruce Ismay and Caleb Robinson and Caroline Marolf as the aging Straus couple. The cast also features the lonely telegrapher with the world at his fingertips, the delightfully prim butler figure, the Irish groupies and other fantastic characters – and on and on.
And therein lies the minor fault of the play. In his or her own right, each character is well-played and well-sung, but the overall effect at times verges on the hectic. Of course, during some scenes in which the passengers realize they are about to, you know, die, things are intentionally and understandably hectic. But at other times, the lack of focus on any particular character or group of characters makes it hard to fully engage.
Despite this minor issue, Titanic is a thoroughly enjoyable experience. From the brilliant costuming, to the evocative lighting, to the aural ambrosia of the orchestra, to the heartfelt performances and directing, the musical is definitely not to be missed.
The musical will show at 8 p.m. tonight and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Abilene Civic Center. Tickets range from $5-25 and are available for purchase online at www.acu.edu/theatre or by calling 325-674-2787.