First off, no lovers will stand entwined at the prow of the massive ocean liner like flushed, giddy figureheads. And most likely, no car windows will fog up with illicit passion down in the ship’s cargo hold.
But Emerson Stage’s production of Titanic, running April 20–22 at the Emerson/Cutler Majestic Theatre, promises to be every bit as riveting and moving as the famous film.
“It’s pretty heavy,” said Adam Settlage ’18, an actor and choreographer for the show. “It takes people through funny moments, happy moments, but then eventually, we all know what happens.”
Maury Yeston’s 1997 Tony Award-winning musical (with book by Peter Stone) tells the story of the 1912 maiden voyage and sinking of the RMS Titanic, through the eyes of First Class, Second Class, and steerage passengers. It explores what the journey represented for the passengers, depending on their class, and how those dreams and expectations were upended by an iceberg in the North Atlantic.
Settlage plays two characters in the show: 1st Officer William Murdoch, the man who takes over for the captain when the ship hits the iceberg, and Mr. D’Amico, a Second Class passenger and dancer.
He said with a 20-piece orchestra, a large ensemble cast, period costumes, and visuals designed by acclaimed Broadway and Las Vegas projectionist and 2017 Waldman Chair in Theater Arts Zachary Borovay, Titanic is, like its namesake, huge.
“The set is titanic,” said scenic designer Patrick Lynch. “The title of the show is both a noun, because that’s the name of the boat, but also an adjective…I think I lean more toward the adjective version of that.”
Which isn’t to say the set is ornate or overly complicated.
Broadway productions of Titanic would feature hydraulic lifts and pulleys to simulate a sinking ship, Lynch said. For Emerson’s staging, director Scott LaFeber, associate professor and head of the Musical Theatre program, wanted to convey both period detail and an immense sense of scale.
“The visual gestures we’re making are big and bold things, as opposed to fussy, complicated stuff,” said Lynch, who has designed sets for theaters throughout the Northeast. “That helps also, because the interest was always to feature projections. My experience with projections is either the projected content could be complicated or the projected surface could be complicated [but not both].”
Lynch’s set is made up of a lot of large flat planes. But to get the surfaces large enough, the flat pieces needed to be stuck together, leaving seams.
Lynch said he decided to use those seams to suggest the riveted metal sheets on the hull of a ship. The pattern of the seams skews as the musical goes on, to indicate that the ship is no longer sitting upright in the water.
Hayley Mason ’17 said the simple design of the set means the ship and her stories will have to come from the characters on stage.
Mason plays Second Class passenger Alice Beane, a character Mason said to her, really represents “the American Dream.” She and her husband, Edgar, are middle-class Midwesterners, but unlike Edgar, Alice aspires to the soirees and fine living of the First Class passengers on the upper decks, and she’s willing to break the rules in order to get there.
Everyone on the ship is striving for something more, Mason said, which is where the drama and the poignancy come from.
“While it does end in tragedy, the first act really fights to earn that tragedy because of the hope,” Mason said. “There was so much joy and so much beauty on the Titanic before the tragedy.”
Titanic is selling fast. For tickets and showtimes, visit aestages.org.