Review: Titanic The Musical, the 2019 High School Project

Titanic The Musical
The 2019 High School Project
The Grand Theatre, London, Ontario
Runs Sept. 17-Sept. 28, 2019
Story and book by Peter Stone
Music and lyrics by Maury Yeston
Directed by Andrew Tribe
Musical director Andrew Petrasiunas

Cast shot at media call on Sept. 17, 2019
The cast of Titanic The Musical in the Grand Theatre’s 2019 High School Project. Photo by Whitney South

In a 1998 interview with Contemporary Musicians writer Mary Kalfatovic, composer Maury Yeston explained that it was the positive aspects of what the Titanic represented that moved him to embark on writing the musical about the fated ship. Among those were: “1) humankind’s striving after great artistic works and similar technological feats, despite the possibility of tragic failure, and 2) the dreams of the passengers on board: 3rd Class, to immigrate to America for a better life; 2nd Class, to live a leisured lifestyle in imitation of the upper classes; 1st Class, to maintain their privileged positions forever.

“The collision with the iceberg dashed all of these dreams simultaneously, and the subsequent transformation of character of the passengers and crew had, it seemed to me, the potential for great emotional and musical expression onstage.”

To successfully portray such poignancy and tragedy would be a challenge for the most skilled stage actors, let alone high school students with limited lived experience: By the show’s intermission, the Titanic’s hull has already been breached. Act 2 is the extended process by which the ship’s captain, crew and passengers face their unsinkable ship’s demise and reckon with their imminent fates.

The London-area teens who bring this production to life are at their best when they’re imagining, dreaming, yearning, wishing — emotions with which they are well acquainted. The more subtle and complex demands of Act 2 — hubris, separation, regret, unfulfilled lives and the prospect of a death so near its saltiness can already be tasted — are less familiar to them and, consequently, less convincing.

There are occasional missed notes and dropped lines. But there are also standout performances and flashes of promise. Among them: Mikéla Marcellin as second-class passenger Caroline Neville, Max Webb Comor as first officer William Murdoch, Sarah Dennison as Titanic designer Thomas Andrews, Leyla Boyacigil as White Star Line chairperson J. Bruce Ismay, Clare Scanlon as first-class passenger Ida Straus, Carter Keane as first-class steward Henry Etches, Matthew deKort as stoker Frederick Barrett and Lauren Gillis as second-class passenger Alice Beane.

Bradley Amesse is sturdily measured and authoritative in his role as Titanic Capt. E.J. Smith, while Tanner Hamlin puts every ounce of energy he possesses into his role as bandmaster Wallace Hartley. And Daniel McKinnon, consigned to the more minor role of Harold Bride, the ship’s radio operator, telegraphs a firm command of his talents.

From media call on Sept. 17
Jack Crim and Lauren Gillis, both Grade 12 students at H.B. Beal Secondary School, portray second-class passengers Edgar and Alice Beane. Photo by Whitney South

This High School Project is ambitious and daring. It was a bold choice. Unlike many previous HSPs, this one has no signature tune, no song that patrons will walk out humming, and no ending that satisfyingly resolves any of the sub-plots within. The iceberg ends all. But this cast and crew meet those challenges without blinking. These students are ambitious, zealous and in firm possession of a story that is both inspiring and tragic — a success for director Andrew Tribe.

There is another layer to this production too. With the show’s run coinciding (inadvertently) with the global climate strike, the comparisons between the Titanic and the fate of Planet Earth are easily apparent. The students on stage will be forced to live through whatever climate legacy the rest of us leave them. Questions about the course we’ve set for the planet; the impacts of our carelessness, negligence and even recklessness; the impending collisions between our dreams and natural science; and whether there’s still time to change course, avoiding a cataclysm ahead — all of these come into focus. They are questions begging for answers, raised by a hard-working cast for whom some future consequence is already inescapable.

For another take on this show, see London Free Press journalist Dan Brown’s review here.

Author: Cornies

I'm a columnist and writer with continuing interests in arts journalism, Canadian politics and culture, and journalism ethics. I teach occasionally at Western University in London, Ontario. Past lives include coordinating the journalism program at Conestoga College, teaching at Ryerson University's School of Journalism, editing A-section news pages at The Globe and Mail, and various roles at The London Free Press, including arts and entertainment editor and editorial page editor.

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