You expect disaster when you go to a musical about a ship going down and drowning almost everyone. Titanic: The Musical may sound like a bad taste joke, but it’s actually a great show.
It was upstaged just months after opening on Broadway by the James Cameron film -“ which remains the world’s most commercially successful film. It is also upstaged by the magnificence of the Titanic legend which, like the epic ship itself, is hard to squeeze onto one stage and into one show.
So you know the story and the ending and if, like me as a boy, you were obsessed with the Titanic you even know all the characters. The musical, unlike the film and its romance between upper and lower decks, is based on these real people.
In the unfolding action key characters are efficiently introduced without gimmick or clich?it’s a musical strong on ensemble acting and singing.
Indeed the real star is Maury Yeston’s quick-witted lyrics and symphonic score, drawing on ragtime music, lively ballads, hymns and counter melodies and backing a vocal strength that is almost operatic.
Significantly, opera singers Joan Carden and Robert Gard are in the cast, bringing big voice to the elderly rich Strauss couple who own Macy’s and choose to drown rather than separate.
We are so used to jukebox cut-and-paste musicals that it’s a surprise to hear complex dramatic songs that drive a story.
Standouts are the immigrants in third class singing their dreams for what America will bring them and, later on upper deck, the women being separated from their men and going down in the life boats.
But the score is also distinguished by solos and duets, both charming and powerful. The brawny stoker, Barrett (Alexander Lewis), singing a telegram to his sweetheart, and the geeky radioman (Matthew Willis), singing his adoration of the new Marconi telegraph technology, make a delicious odd couple.
Notable performances too come from Hayden Tee as the guilt-ridden designer, who goes down with his unsinkable ship, and Brendan Higgins as the bullish owner, Ismay, who bullies the captain to go faster but later is the first into the lifeboats with the ladies.
Director John Diedrich gets the best from everyone in this ensemble and all, neatly calibrated by class, are finely costumed circa 1912.
I have to admit though this artful show still left me occasionally restless: perhaps finally I have had my fill of this incredible story.
Titanic: The Musical is now playing at the Theatre Royal.