For now 34 years running, the Candlelight Pavilion in Claremont, CA, has earned the foremost distinction as a dinner-theater site that consistently rewards its customer base with the highest caliber of food and onstage entertainment. The first musical of its 34th season, the highly anticipated “Titanic,” the Musical, which plays through February 23rd, not only meets expectations, but exceeds them, with spot-on casting and technical prowess. There is an engaging finesse in the way the tragic factual story, which has fascinated the public for years, is told such that the audience is right there with the characters who honorably represent the 2,208 aboard the RMS Titanic between April 10th and 15th, 1912.
Sadly, much went wrong with the maiden voyage of the seemingly invincible ship – a technological marvel of its era – which resulted in a catastrophic collision with an iceberg in the pitch black still of night, only a few days away from its New York destination since heading out from Southampton, England. An unnerving total of 1,503 people perished, many of whom were from secondary and tertiary classes, and despite the fact that 400 more could have sat in the well-below-protocol 20 lifeboats (the Titanic was equipped to carry 64).
Twelve years after the wreckage of the Titanic was finally discovered in 1985, “Titanic,” the Musical – written by Peter Stone and with music and lyrics by Maury Yeston – debuted on Broadway, winning five Tony Awards. Of course, the James Cameron-directed film, which was released in December 1997, surpassed all box-office records at the time, as well. And so the grandeur that one might expect from “Titanic” is fully satisfied with Candlelight Pavilion’s production of the musical in 2019, which is directed with a touching earnestness by Chuck Ketter, who is also responsible for the sweeping set that takes us upon the starry-skied deck, into the Grand Salon, the engine room, and more, which cleverly take on a slanted appearance following the crash.
Prospective attendees will be pleased to know there is rich and reverberant live music from the “Titanic Band,” led by musical director and keyboardist, Andrew Orbison, who brings Yeston’s score to life, intermixing moments of hopeful joy with the swelling din of looming devastation. Jonathan Daroca’s lighting design not only casts an immaculate moon-lit glow, but conveys the unimaginable urgency inside the compromised ship with an ominous flickering. Furthermore, Dylan Pass’ choreography underscores the collective aspirations and sacrifices of the show’s characters, who impress with their authentic costumes and wigs, which are coordinated by Mark Gamez, Merrill Grady, Linda Vick, and Michon Gruber-Gonzales.
The performers, who stand in for their real-life counterparts, are perfect in their roles, so much so that many of them sound eerily similar to those from the original Broadway cast recording. This is clearly a musical in which the sum is greater than its individual parts, insofar that there is an equal weaving of character arcs and narratives, adding up to a unity amid the sorrowful denouement that befalls the legendary vessel.
In fact, the characters onboard the Titanic are divided into four groups: the crew and staff, in addition to the first, second, and third-class passengers, all of whom dream of better horizons for themselves. Captain E.J. Smith is portrayed by Marc Montminy, who brings a great deal of humanity to the 43-year stalwart of the sea, who looks forward to retiring upon the conclusion of the Titanic’s first voyage. When the terrible reality of the Titanic is finally accepted, Montminy’s Smith finds himself in the unenviable position of deciding who survives and who does not. Perhaps it needn’t had come to that if J. Bruce Ismay, Director the White Star Line (actualized with superb antagonistic intensity by Greg Nicholas), doesn’t relentlessly push the captain to go faster than what is recommended, or if the designer of the Titanic, Thomas Andrews (played with a sympathetic sensibility by Jeffrey Warden) had accounted for the ocean liner’s blueprint weaknesses. Culpability is inevitably thrown around between the aforementioned men, erupting in one of the most intense, sobering, and memorable performances in Act II’s “The Blame.”
First-officer William Murdoch is depicted with dignity by Johnny Fletcher, whose persona is seen as a prodigy at the helm. Another standout is Tony Winkel, who spells his stage time between third-officer Herbert J. Pitman, who dutifully leads “Godspeed Titanic,” and first-class steward Henry Etches, a heartwarming character who is proud and honored to serve alongside other staff members like the Bellboy (imbued with an extra-sunny disposition by Christian “Pinecone” Pineda). Two of the musical numbers, “What a Remarkable Age This Is and “God Lift Me Up,” reflect a gratitude among the staff and first-class passengers that is unfortunately not well received by fate.
As the engine-room stoker, Frederick Barrett, Gregg Hammer is one of the production’s most emotional anchors. He uses his tenor vocals to full capacity to both highlight his character’s destiny in “Barrett’s Song,” and during “The Proposal,” when he fortuitously gets the kind and unassuming radio operator, Harold Bride, embodied by Gavin Juckette, to telegraph his unyielding love for his girlfriend. As Bride, Juckette delights with his sweet-natured voice in “The Night Was Alive,” and he similarly has all eyes on him when portraying Bandmaster Wallace Hartley, specifically during “Doing the Latest Rag” and “Autumn.” In a different turn, Max Herzfeld is enigmatic, though sincere, as Frederick Fleet, the lookout, whose only upper body is observable at the front of the stage as he forebodingly laments of “No Moon” and wind at sea.
Last, but not least, are the ship’s couples, who are all brought to life again with an evocative genuineness. In first class, the longtime-married Isidor and Ida Straus (Jamie Snyder and Samantha Wynn Greenstone) are just as in love with one another as they were forty years prior – a declaration that elicits watery eyes in “Still.”
Second-class passengers Charles Clarke and Caroline Neville (Matt Bolden and Amanda Greig) aren’t married yet but fervently hope to be, a wish that heartbreakingly never comes to fruition. The endearing Edgar and Alice Beane (Matt Carvin and Sarah Meals) — also second-class passengers — have been married for some time, with the latter becoming weary of her place in life, and drawn to the attractive notion of mingling with first-class guests and one day acquiring more than what she has. Finally, in third class is Kate McGowan (Catie Marron), pregnant out of wedlock with child, who falls in love with fellow Irish immigrant Jim Farrell (Zach Fogel) and the prospect of new beginnings and happy tidings when the Titanic docks at New York.
Regrettably, the ambitions and expectations of the majority of Titanic’s passengers never reached their full course when horrifying misfortune struck on April 15, 1912. “Titanic,” the Musical, which is presented poignantly at the Candlelight Pavilion, and in heartfelt deference to the fallen souls of the “floating city,” reminds audience members to not take life for granted as tragedy is never too far away from triumph.
For more information about “Titanic,” the Musical, at the Candlelight Pavilion, please visit candlelightpavilion.com