Milwaukee Repertory Theater's 'Titanic the Musical' is a triumph – Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

With its cinematic score and storytelling, Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s “Titanic the Musical” is a tale of disaster that ends in triumph for the audience. 
Watching Saturday evening’s opening performance, I sometimes felt like I was inside a movie about this transatlantic tragedy, with the narrative pulling back for long shots, then zooming in for intimate moments. 
Maury Yeston’s music underlines this feeling with symphonic moments that nod to Elgar and British music circa 1912, the year the Titanic foundered.
Director Mark Clements has marshaled the Rep’s considerable technical resources to launch this musical ship. Projected film footage draws us back in time mentally; judiciously used supertitles ground us in the timeline of the Titanic’s voyage.
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Much of Act 1 is a praise song to this “perfection of physical engineering,” 46,000 thousand tons of steel, 11 stories high, “the largest moving object in the world.” We’re also introduced to the dreams of its passengers and crew, including three Irish women in third class, all named Kate; Alice (Lillian Castillo), a second-class traveler with an insatiable longing to hobnob with the millionaires in first class; and publicity conscious White Star Line chairman J. Bruce Ismay (Andrew Varela), who wants the Titanic to become a legend. 
When the vessel is under way, a complex conflict emerges among Ismay, Capt. E.J. Smith (David Hess) and Titanic designer Thomas Andrews (Jeremy Landon Hays). Ismay agitates for maximum speed to cut a day off the voyage and boost the Titanic’s reputation; Andrews considers a higher speed possible under the best conditions, but doesn’t push; Capt. Smith is oddly passive-aggressive, resenting Ismay’s demands but gradually yielding to them. 
As the vessel steams toward its icy doom, life unfolds throughout. The impish Castillo sneaks into first class every chance she gets, ushered out by first-class steward Etches (Matt Daniels), the beleaguered Jeeves of this operation. Castillo’s playfulness makes her compelling every time she’s on stage. Her character is just an Instagram or TikTok account short of being one of us. 
In third class, the frankest and feistiest of the Kates, McGowan (Emma Rose Brooks), has an agenda behind the shipboard romance she strikes up with Jim Farrell (Brian Krinsky). 
The ocean liner is a hierarchical world, for both passengers and crew. “Titanic the Musical” highlights this after the vessel strikes an iceberg and begins sinking. First-class and second-class passengers are escorted to the far-too-few lifeboats available; third-class passengers are mostly left to fend for themselves. 
You are free to draw your own parallels to other disasters that affect everyone, but which the rich face with more resources. And note Etches’ lament about the fate of essential workers: “All 50 bellboys, none more than 15 years old, went to their deaths without a whimper.” 
As women and children are funneled into the boats, we see many tearful farewells to the men — and the great romantic moment when Ida Straus (Carrie Hitchcock) refuses to leave her husband Isidor (Philip Hoffman) to die alone on the ship.
Music director Dan Kazemi’s orchestra plays with more power and provides more musical variety than you might expect from a septet, stoking the sweeping quality of the score. There were some moments when both my companion and I could not make out the singers’ words over the music; I suspect this is a balance issue that can be fixed in later performances. 
Jenn Rose choreographed lively dance scenes, including the fizzy ragtime number where Castillo eludes Daniels. 
The Rep uses 30 actors, including children, in this production. Each one is necessary for evoking this still-fascinating tragedy of more than a century ago.
Contact Jim Higgins at Follow him on Twitter at @jhiggy.
Milwaukee Repertory Theater performs “Titanic the Musical” through May 14 at the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater, 108 E. Wells St. For tickets, visit or call (414) 224-9490.


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