In his pre-curtain speech, executive director and producer James A. Blackman III says the Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities’ big-budget ($750,000), opulently produced revival of the 1997 Tony Award-winning Peter Stone/Maury Weston Broadway musical is a 10th-anniversary gift to the loyal subscribers who have made the Redondo Beach company one of the country’s more successful annual musical theater enterprises. Indeed, Thomas Buderwitz’s sumptuous design (built by NBC Studios), which far surpasses in form and function the original 1998 touring company’s underwhelming sets, gives this troublesome work the spectacle and grandeur it’s going to need to have legs during its planned East Coast tour and possible return to Broadway. The strong ensemble gathered here under Michael Michetti’s facile staging is a plus.
Reminiscent of John Napier’s awe-inspiring “Sunset Boulevard” setting seven years ago at the Shubert, Buderwitz’s multilevel Titanic envelopes the expansive Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center stage, offering an impressive re-creation of life aboard the nearly quarter-mile-long steamship. Aided immensely by Kim Killingsworth’s complementary lighting, Buderwitz uses a creative array of shifting panels to highlight the full range of the ship’s activities, from the revelry in upper-deck first class down to the lower-level stokers’ boiler room. The scenic highlight, however, is the second-act unveiling of the eye-popping, wood-paneled, marble-staircased grand salon.
No matter how impressive, a set can go only so far. The weaknesses in Stone’s meandering book and Yeston’s pleasant but unmemorable score have not been solved. The onstage action is spread too thin among too many personalities, giving no one character enough substance and development to carry the action and give the audience a rooting interest.
Aided by conductor Steven Landau’s outstanding pit orchestra and the supportive sound reinforcement of John Feinstein, the music often soars magnificently, but rarely manages to affect the emotions.
But Michetti and his large but perfectly cast ensemble transcend the show’s limitations. From opening curtain to final bows, the actors exhibit a dynamic energy that pushes the plot beyond its inherent boundaries.
Among the many outstanding portrayals, Kevin Earley offers a world of longing as a lovesick coal stoker (“Barrett’s Song”). Eve Cohen and John Bisom are a captivating pair of steerage-class Irish immigrants who overflow with enthusiasm about their future life in America (“Lady’s Maid”). Lisa Dyson and Bob Edgar offer welcome comic relief as a relentless social climber and her long-suffering middle-class husband (“The First Class Roster”).
In a complete departure from his role as hapless Larry on the old sitcom “Three’s Company,” Richard Kline exudes a haunting dignity as tragic Titanic Captain E.J. Smith. He’s complemented by Mark Capri’s effective turn as slimy, self-serving ship owner J. Bruce Ismay and Tony Adelman’s outing as ship designer Thomas Andrews, who’s made nearly catatonic by the disaster.