Circle Players, one of the first resident companies at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, makes a triumphant return to that cultural edifice in downtown Nashville to mount its latest revival of Titanic the Musical just in time to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the ship's sinking in the frigid waters of the north Atlantic.
With a creative team led by Tim Larson, the visionary director who first mounted the Maury Yeston-Peter Stone musical for the venerable community theater group in 2008, Titanic the Musical still packs an emotional wallop and the production values of this new mounting are truly exceptional-the sumptuous physical trappings of the production, which include the sets used in the most recent national tour and the stunning costumes provided by designer Cat Arnold and her estimable team, rival the best you've ever seen on a Nashville stage.
Titanic the Musical is a fitting vehicle for Circle's first TPAC production in several years and represents the great strides made by the company in recent years, the ambitious efforts of its extraordinary group of volunteers truly representing the best of Nashville theater.
Yet, after all is said and done, I can't help but miss the more engaging nature of the show when it is played in more intimate confines (in 2008, "the ships of dreams" first set sail at the Z. Alexander Looby Theatre, then it was revived in 2010 in partnership with The Larry Keeton Theatre). In a smaller venue, the audience feels more directly connected to the dramatic events onstage-you feel more involved in the lives of the myriad characters represented in the script-and so the musical's ultimate outcome, however expected it may be, seems somehow more personal.
While the more imposing Polk Theatre provides the ideal setting for the soaring set and The Lofty aspirations of Circle's leaders, the more sumptuous setting also magnifies the production's shortcomings (not the least of which is the unevenness often found among community theater casts, which can be of such far-ranging skill levels) and points out the obvious problems of Peter Stone's glossed-over treatment of the now-legendary tale of greed and avarice writ large across the ship, an obvious symbol of The Gilded Age, made more poignant of course by the enormous loss of life that resulted from the RMS Titanic's maiden voyage.
Stone's task in capturing the story of the RMS Titanic, encapsulating the stories of the 2,224 people onboard the floating city that was deemed unsinkable by its designer and builders, requires obvious herculean effort and when you consider the wealth of information, the abundance of Titanic minutiae and the personal stories fairly begging to be told, it's a wonder he was able to construct such a tale that is in the least bit accessible. But as a result, the characters tend to be archetypes (rather than flesh and blood depictions of real people), each meant to represent something more than their individuality would suggest. And therein lies the problem with the book: With such a rich, vivid collection of people to capture in the play, it's difficult for them to emerge as fully dimensional and intriguing.
Yeston's musical score, sometimes beautiful and stirring, too often sounds far too familiar or staggeringly similar and there are no songs that stand out from among the rest. In short, you are unlikely to leave the theatre humming a familiar tune, but you are likely to be haunted by the musical refrains that reverberate through your heart. As with its earlier incarnations, this production's most noteworthy musical numbers are the group choral numbers that very nearly lift the roof off the Polk Theatre, so exquisitely sung and so artfully rendered are they, particularly the final number "In Every Age/Godspeed Titanic" that is likely to leave you somewhat emotionally drained, your eyes dampened (if not by the tableaux of personal devastation you've just witnessed, then most certainly by the beauty of its performance). Larson's staging of that final, awe-inspiring scene is elegantly understated, thus providing the emotional payoff the audience has so eagerly anticipated.