Monday, May 16, 2011

"Titanic" Rises on Stage at Community Players

I love Maury Yeston's work. Let's just get that right out there before we go any farther.

Yeston is the composer behind the musical "Nine" and the song "Unusual Way," which I think is one of the most beautiful and captivating show tunes ever, as well as the other "Phantom," whose plot and music are much more to my liking than the more famous Andrew Lloyd Webber version. Yeston also wrote the score for "Grand Hotel," and a song cycle called "December Songs."

P.S. Classics (something else I love) put out a collection called "The Maury Yeston Songbook" in 2003, featuring songs from all of those shows, with individual songs performed by an amazing roster of Broadway stars, from Laura Benanti to Liz Callaway, Brent Barrett, Christine Ebersole, Brian d'Arcy James, Sutton Foster and Betty Buckley. If you don't own a copy of "The Maury Yeston Songbook," you need to buy one immediately. I'm not kidding.

Have you ordered one yet? I'll just wait while you do. Don't worry -- I will listen to my own copy while you're busy with that.

Done? Good.

There is just one song from Yeston's "Titanic" included in "The Maury Yeston Songbook." It's the last cut on the cd, and it's the haunting "No Moon," sung by the lookout on the Titanic as he peers into the darkness, watching out for icebergs. Howard McGillin, who owns one of Broadway's best voices, performed the song for this "Songbook," and he's wonderful.

To my mind, Yeston's big, emotional, sweeping score is the strongest part of this "Titanic," which opened on Broadway in 1997, winning five Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Original Score, and running at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre for 804 performances. On Broadway, "Titanic" was filled with stars like John Cunningham, who played the captain of the ill-fated ship, Brian d'Arcy James, beginning his Broadway career in the role of the "stoker" down in the boiler room, Victoria Clark, as gossipy social-climber Alice Beane, and Michael Cerveris, playing J. Bruce Ismay, the villain of the piece, head honcho of the White Star Line, who demands that the ship go faster, icebergs be damned.

Peter Stone's book squeezes in a lot of stories, with somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 roles played by 37 actors (if I counted correctly) in the Broadway production. That production was also famous for its complicated, hydraulic set, with three decks and the capability to lurch and tilt to indicate the ship was sinking. That's fine for Broadway (although it pales in comparison to "Spider Man" and his technological woes), but not so much for regional productions, especially in community theaters. So how in the world does a company like Community Players in Bloomington, Illinois, begin to pull off something that huge?

Director Sally Parry and Scenic Designer Bruce Parrish wisely choose to rein in the set, with a gallery at the top for the ship's bridge, two curving staircases for passengers to congregate on, a space in the center to tuck the orchestra under the gallery, and every bit of space on the apron for shifting scenes from the boiler room to the crow's nest and the radio room. There's also a scrim to project an image of the "Titanic" on at the onset. That creates some handsome stage pictures and also provides just enough playing space.

Parry and Musical Director Chad Kirvan have pulled together a really terrific cast, with lots of excellent voices to fill Yeston's score. It's an ensemble show in every sense of the word, but it's hard not to pick out favorites as we see them sing us their stories. I was especially impressed with Mark S. Robinson's take on Thomas Andrews, the ship's designer, who gives voice to the dreams of greatness and progress that went into the Titanic in both the opening and "Mr. Andrews Vision," W. John Lieder's stalwart Captain Smith; Joel Shoemaker, bringing us a sweet, honorable everyman as Barrett the stoker and sounding terrific on both "Barrett's Song" and "The Proposal," Natalie LaRocque, pretty and tuneful as the first of the Kates, Irish girls stuck in 3rd class but dreaming of what they might be in America in "Lady's Maid," and Kirvan himself, leading the band and fronting "Doing the Latest Rag."

There are only four performances left of Community Players' "Titanic," and you are well-advised to reserve tickets now. The Sunday matinee I saw was completely sold out. It also ended with a standing ovation and a lot of happy audience members.

Music and lyrics by Maury Yestion, and book by Peter Stone.

Community Players Theatre
201 Robinhood Lane
Bloomington, IL

Director: Sally Parry
Musical Director: Chad Kirvan
Assistant Director/Choreographer: Sherise Kirvan
Scenic Designer/Builder: Bruce Parrish
Properties Designers: Dorothy Mundy and Carol Plotkin
Costume Designer: Opal Virtue
Lighting Designer: Dan Virtue
Sound Designer: Rich Plotkin

Cast includes Nikki Lask Aitken, Brian Artman, Fania Bourn, Omni Bourn, Sara Bronson, Karen Clark, Jason Coppenbarger, Jason Culpepper, Joe Culpepper, Cristian Embree, Wendi Lee Fleming, Jay Hartzler, Kyle Holliday, Jim Kalmbach, Ryan Kane, Aimee Kerber, Mindy LaHood, Natalie LaRocque, Dave Lemmon, W. John Lieder,Ashley Lyons, Charlie Maaks, Andrew Martin, Andrea Martinez, Laura McBurney, Nick McBurney, Bob McLaughlin, Aditi Mocharla, Eli Mundy, Charles Palm, Gerald Price, Eric Reichelt, Herb Reichelt, Reena Rhoda, Mark S. Robinson, Joel Dwight Shoemaker, Kelly Slater, Deb Smith, Diane L. Smith, Chrissie Strong, Scarlett Strong, Chuck Stuckey, Cody Stuepfert, Cathy Sutliff, Austin Travis, Kevin Paul Wickart, Todd Wineburner, Emily Wurmnest.

Remaining Performances: May 19, 20 and 21 at 7:30 pm and May 22 at 2:30 pm.

Box office: 309-663-2121 or click here to buy tickets online.


  1. Great review, Julie, and I'm so pleased to hear of a community theater choosing to do this! I saw the Broadway production (back before the Tonys, when we were sure it would close any day now) and loved it, but feared that it would never get done again. So glad I was wrong.

    Forgive me for harking back to an earlier column, but I'm not sure if you get alerted when a comment is made to a week-old post. The Fred & Adele Astaire Award recipients were announced yesterday (Susan Stroman, Sutton Foster, and... Norbert Leo Butz?). You, who know all things Fred, should know: is there any place I can find a list of all past winners of the award? The award's own website only goes back to last year (and in a hard-to-decipher format). Surely ANYTHING can be found on the internet if one looks in the right place?!

  2. I found these clumps at Broadway World: "Always one of the most glamorous and eagerly anticipated events on the theatrical calendar, the Awards have paid homage to the brightest lights in the world of dance: Previous winners of awards for dance performance include: Debbie Allen, Hinton Battle, Charlotte D'Amboise, Savion Glover, Gregory Hines, Natalia Makarova, Donna McKechnie, Ann Miller, Bebe Neuwirth, Ann Reinking and Chita Rivera.

    "Previous winners of awards for choreography are such legends as George Balanchine, Michael Bennett, Patricia Birch, Wayne Cilento, Graciela Daniele, Bob Fosse, Peter Martins, Ann Reinking, Jerome Robbins, Susan Stroman and two-time winner Tommy Tune."

    Playbill ran an article in 1997 that says there are two winners for the same award for the first time. That would be Ann Reinking and Bebe Neuwirth, sharing Best Female Dancer honors. Reinking also got Best Choreographer. So we have 97 and those winners. That same piece says 1996 was Savion Glover as Best Male and Best Choreographer, with Donna McKechnie taking Best Female honors. And then it says:

    "Other Astaire Award winners -- dancer and choreographers alike -- include Debbie Allen, Michael Bennett, Wayne Cilento, Charles "Honi" Coles, Don Correia, Natalia Makarova, Charlotte D'Amboise, Bob Fosse, Gregory Hines, Chita Rivera, Jerome Robbins, Susan Stroman and Tommy Tune." So we know those people had won by 1996, at any rate.

    Still looking...

    Still looking for a list with years. I did find that the award was established by the Anglo-American Contemporary Dance Foundation in 1982 as just the Astaire Awards. It changed its name to Fred & Adele in 1991, I think, when it started to be administered by the Theatre Development Fund.

  3. Oh, and since the award seems to be given for a specific performance, we might be able to figure out who goes with which year by when that person had a show.

  4. While I'm making irrelevant comments (because probably nobody is looking a month back, even if Julie gets an alert), there are a number of great short videos posted by the ARCADIA people, with interview and production footage. You can start here

    and follow the links from there.