Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
The 330 seats in the MAX Theatre surround Paul Tate DePoo III's free-form set, composed of seemingly simple components: a central playing area accessible from the corners of the auditorium, easily movable pieces of furniture, and metal ramps that lead to a network of overhead walkways. The musicians perform from a metal balcony attached to the rear wall of the theater.
The hard-working actors, most of whom play multiple roles, luxuriate in Maury Yeston's score and, under Schaeffer's guidance, bring life to a mosaic of stories in Peter Stone's historically accurate book. (Note that the Tony Award-winning musical has no relation to the Academy Award-winning movie, although both opened in 1997.)
Stone traces the 1912 maiden voyage of the supposedly unsinkable ocean liner through a wide span of perspectives, from the idealistic ship designer Thomas Andrews (Bobby Smith) and the publicity-hungry head of the White Star Line, J. Bruce Ismay (Lawrence Redmond), to members of the crew and passengers in first class (the wealthy and famous), second class (financially comfortable, fascinated by the first-class patrons), and third class (immigrants heading to new lives in America). Yeston's score has gravitas and beauty, incorporating hymn tunes, ragtime, Irish-inflected melodies, and moments of intense (never overdone) emotion.
Standouts in Schaeffer's cast, filled with Signature regulars in strong form, include Smith, resolute until the unthinkable happens; Sam Ludwig as a soulful stoker; Christopher Bloch as the ship's captain; Tracy Lynn Olivera as an overly enthusiastic second-class passenger desperate to crash first class; Nick Lehan in several roles; and, most touchingly, John Leslie Wolfe and Florence Lacey as Isador and Ida Straus, whose love story provides the real heart of the production. A formal couple in their 60s, married for 40 years, he refused to board a lifeboat so younger passengers could survive and she refused to leave him. Making impressions in smaller roles are Kevin McAllister as the captain's second in command, rich-voiced Iyona Blake as an heiress marrying "beneath her station," and Katie McManus as a determined Irish immigrant making a fresh start.
The production looks as good as it sounds with striking images created through Amanda Zieve's lighting design: the glowing red pits of the boiler room, the lavish chandelier in first class, and the encroaching fog and distortions as the ship falters.