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It's smooth sailing when Spotlight Productions launches Titanic

No one bothered to tell Spotlight Productions that Titanic is way too ambitious a musical to be attempted by a community theater. The scenic design must approximate the grandest ocean liner of the early twentieth century -- and it must sink. An unusually large cast must sing intricate, even dense, music. Spotlight went ahead and staged the show anyway; the result is positively remarkable.

If ever a plot did not need retelling, it's this one. In the nine decades since this floating city sank during its début crossing in April 1912 -- a disaster so sudden, cataclysmic and inexplicable that it became a monument to the folly of human presumption -- the story has been chronicled in scores of books and nearly a dozen motion pictures, from the still-riveting A Night to Remember in 1958 to the banal James Cameron-directed opus in 1997. But a musical?

Despite the fact that when it was produced on Broadway seven years ago, Titanic won five Tony Awards and ran for more than 800 performances, this show has often been a target of disdain. Critics carp that the score is too self-conscious, whatever that means. But one of the virtues of this simplified production is that the songs are not overwhelmed by lush orchestrations and distracting amplification. Here, the music is revealed as purposeful and specific. Maury Yeston composed soaring ballads, resplendent anthems, sprightly rags and dreamy waltzes. He wrote lazy songs for millionaires, angry songs for boiler-room stokers. A viewer is likely to leave this Titanic astonished by both the breadth and the beauty of Yeston's score.

The originality of Yeston's lyrics is consistent with his music. "7,000 heads of fresh lettuce, Titanic!," a stevedore sings. "36,000 oranges, Titanic!" These are not lyrics you sing in the shower, but they reflect the show's commitment to telling its story melodically. From the moment the curtain rises, and ship designer Thomas Andrews (Doug Erwin) compares his 25,000-ton leviathan to pyramids and Stonehenge, it is crystal clear that this musical is not going to be yet another Titanic sudser in which the background might be fact, but the foreground is sheer fiction. Here, the background is the foreground.

"What a remarkable age this is," one song proclaims. According to Peter Stone's economical script, it was an age marked by "greed, compromise and compliance" -- all of which led directly to this titanic North Atlantic nightmare. Stone, who died ten weeks ago, is best known as the author of such escapist movie scripts as Charade and Father Goose (both for Cary Grant), but he also was one of the musical theater's most underrated carpenters. Stone knew how to craft brief scenes that pay off in big laughs. And, as he displayed in 1776, another musical inspired by historical fact, he could distill a serious issue down to its essence. Here, the principal conflict plays out between Captain Smith (Brad Slavik), who as shipmaster demanded autonomy, and White Star Line executive J. Bruce Ismay (Wayne Mackenberg), who bullied Smith to travel at unsafe speeds.

Director Brad Schwartz keeps the production sailing smoothly, even when scene changes for Jason Stahr's functional five-level set (not counting the crow's nest) threaten to slow down the proceedings. Schwartz uses those levels to good effect in displaying a caste-conscious cast of nearly 50. Among the many effective singers, Glenn Guillermo stands out as the shy radio operator who connects with spectral voices in the night by tapping out "dit-dit-dah-dit-dah-dit." (Composer Yeston even finds haunting eloquence in the Marconi telegraph.) It's good to hear this score performed by a live orchestra, though the sound would be enhanced by some brass.

Spotlight Productions is one of the few community theaters to have the luxury of a dramaturge. Lucinda Gyurci spent two months assembling a museum-worthy lobby exhibit about the Titanic. Like everything else associated with this production, it is surprisingly first-rate.

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