Thursday, November 11, 1999

'Titanic' drama missing something

It's a epic tale with epic problems

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        In giant letters, the gangway carries the words “White Star Line.”' They come aboard: the captain, the architect, the owner, the stoker, the look-out, the telegraph operator, the rich, the poor, the striving middle-class.

        They are going to have an adventure. They are going to set sail on “a floating city,” “the pride of mankind,” “the dominion of the sea.”

        And within a few days, they are going to sink into the Atlantic, but not into oblivion.

        R.M.S. Titanic became a legend on her maiden voyage by simply hitting an iceberg and going down with two-thirds of its passengers.

        The Broadway musical Titanic has sailed into the Aronoff Center for the Arts for a two-week run, and it's an epic tale with an epic's problems: there are more than a dozen significant characters to keep track of — the evil ship owner, the pregnant Irish girl in steerage, the people-watching lady from Indianapolis in second class and so many more.

        Because there's so much story to tell, we don't really get to know any of them, although we care about them all in the way that we have feelings for anyone we know is doomed.

        That chill of destiny carries Titanic through its first act, but the stage Titanic's problems become evident in the second. All drama needs conflict, a protagonist, an antagonist. The show's creators have rightfully kept the focus off the characters and on the liner. But we never see the protagonist — the ship — or the antagonist — the iceberg. There are a couple very big somethings missing here.

        Despite the absence of the show's real stars, Titanic is fun to watch with its huge cast, all of them capable, most of them anonymous. They're not intended to stand out, although you have to admire the way Liz McConahay delivers the hyper-speed patter song that introduces big-name (Astor, Guggenheim, Strauss), first-class passengers.

        The show moves around the ship, from the boiler room to the bridge, as the script asserts what we already know: the Titanic wasn't so much an accident as a disaster waiting to happen. It was going too fast, looking for a record trans-Atlantic crossing, when every sign (the temperature, the dead calm sea, the insistent iceberg warnings) demanded proceeding with caution.

        The show's most noble characters are its working stiffs. The weakest sections belong to the millionaires, but everybody is dressed to the nines, so at least you can admire the costumes while waiting for something more interesting to happen.

        The touring show suffers somewhat from shifting from Broadway's vertical staging to a horizontal plane. The look-out was a lot more effective watching from a crow's nest than he is standing at the side of the stage. There also was something elegant in the original production setting its scenes on appropriate decks.

        Titanic, Fifth Third Bank Broadway Series, Aronoff Center for the Arts' Procter & Gamble Hall, through Nov. 21. 749-3465.


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