116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Revival Theatre Company is bringing new life to a forgotten musical about an unforgettable tragedy.
Despite winning five Tony Awards, including Best Musical, “Titanic” was eclipsed by the Oscar-winning movie, both of which hit theaters in 1997.
Twenty-five years later, an A-list cast of local actors and musicians will be leading the way Sept. 23 to 25 in Revival Theatre’s production onstage at Theatre Cedar Rapids.
The story revolves around portraits in courage, daring, reckless abandon, hopes and dreams that live and die with the ship. Among the familiar faces are Steve Rezabek as White Star Line executive and ship owner Bruce Ismay; Greg Smith as Captain Smith; Rob Merritt as ship designer Thomas Andrews; Joe Wetrich as Titanic’s coal stoker Fred Barrett. Others who have had leading or featured roles in past Revival productions include Zane Hadish, Sage Spiker, Joshua Fryvecind and Anne Ohrt.
Just don’t expect to see Jack and Rose.
“Those are made up characters in the movie. They’re not real people,” director Brian Glick said. “Everybody in the musical version is factual — is a real person. And that’s what’s beautiful about the musical. There’s no made-up scenario, character — anything — so it’s super authentic. And that’s what makes it really beautiful and lovely.”
What: Revival Theatre Company presents “Titanic,” the musical
Where: Theatre Cedar Rapids, 102 Third St. SE
When: Sept. 23 to 25; 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $22 to $46; Theatre Cedar Rapids Box Office, (319) 366-8591 or theatrecr.org/event/titanic-the-musical/2022-09-23/
The closest the musical comes to the movie’s pivotal Jack and Rose love story is the budding relationship between third-class passengers Kate McGowan, played by Catherine Blades, and heroic Jim Farrell, played by Spiker. Both are professional actors and Eastern Iowa natives.
“A lot of people are still (asking), ‘Are we going to hear ‘My Heart Will Go On?’ No, but you'll hear some music that you can hum,” music director Cameron Sullenberger said. “And I think that you will be taken by the score and by the action.”
He agreed that the blockbuster movie eclipsed the stage version, which won Tonys for music and lyrics by Maury Yeston and book by Peter Stone, as well as for orchestrations and scenic design.
“It's one of those big musicals that got forgotten,” Sullenberger said, “but I would put it next to ‘Showboat’ (and) ‘Ragtime.’ It really was a style — these period, big shows that you just don’t see very much. But you know, if you have a bunch of people that are chomping at the bit to sing again, and be on a stage again, this is what you do.”
It does feature the proverbial cast of thousands, with 70 actors and a 16-piece orchestra onstage.
“I love these kinds of shows that we do,” Glick said when reflecting on those numbers. “We really built a model around it — we have a whole system. We’ve come a long way since ‘Parade,’ which was our first attempt at it. … When I first started directing, I directed with large groups of people … so I’m super comfortable around large groups.”
With a large production comes a large price tag. “Titanic” is the professional troupe’s most expensive show yet, at $90,000, financed primarily through grants, individual and corporate donations, ticket sales, sponsorships and the troupe’s Artist Endowment Fund.
Still, the scenery won’t be a lavish recreation of the ship and infamous iceberg, which was done for the original Broadway version, with three floors representing the three levels of class accommodations, then breaking in half, with actors dodging chairs as the chaos unfolds.
“It was very extreme, very literal, which was very much the ’90s, in terms of design onstage,” Glick said, noting the Revival scenery will be scaled back to let the stories shine.
“We get what happens — we don’t need people falling off platforms,” he said. “It’s about the people. I found myself when I watch these videos of the sets doing this, with people sliding off and hanging for their life, that I’m so focused on that I’m not paying attention to the story or the music and I’m disconnected. So it’s just not necessary. …
“From our perspective, there’s still a lot with lighting, a lot with sound and multimedia. The entire back wall is multimedia, to create that place in time, and lighting to create dramatic looks and blackouts, so that we know something happened (via) sound effects and music. And that’s enough.”
The scenery will have railings and ramps to create various levels, as well as a tall staircase that will serve as the lookout point, and a passerelle around the orchestra pit, so it will look like various characters are walking around the boat’s edge. Smoke and lights also will shoot out from the pit, since the orchestra will be seated onstage, opening that space beneath the stage for special effects.
“We really don’t cheat the audience,” Sullenberger added. “We give you the whole thing, other than all the moving set pieces that you would see in full-out musical production. You’re gonna get everything.”
The music is big and sweeping, “definitely a mix of opera and musical theater,” Glick noted.
“The overture sounds very cinematic and operatic in its presentation. And yet, it’s very stylistic. It’s very time period-appropriate (with) the latest rag. It’s the Industrial Revolution, at the turn of the 20th century,” Glick said. “It sounds like that era.”
“(Yeston’s) score really captures the water and the grandness of everything,” Sullenberger said. “It also captures the ominous end throughout the whole thing.
“The way he paced it was, ‘I don't want this to be about the end. We all know what the end is.’ I think it's more interesting to the audience, who these people were, and how they felt about their life and about the trip and about the joy. And then the utmost — the terror. Some of them went down just sitting, smoking a cigar. The orchestra went down playing. Talk about sacrifice,” Sullenberger said.
“So I think he captures that in the music. He captures that in the melodies — the melodies are sweeping and lush.”
It also captures the characters’ homelands, with Celtic, English and German influences.
“And there’s always this undercurrent with the piano, like water flowing,” noted Sullenberger, who will be playing piano under the baton of returning conductor Michelle Perrin Blair of Texas, former orchestra director at Coe College in Cedar Rapids.
“(Yeston) also knows when to keep it lighter, and to keep it celebrant, and not totally serious,” Sullenberger added. "He really put it together in a lovely way.“
It also serves as a reminder that the characters all wanted to be on the ship, and of course, had no idea what would seal their fate.
“They were having the time of their life until they weren’t,” Glick said, from the titans of industry in First Class who felt entitled to be onboard to the people in Third Class who were there by the luck of the draw, eager to find new opportunities in America.
Cast member Rob Merritt, 46, of Cedar Rapids, has been captivated by the Titanic story since around age 10 or 11, when he saw a National Geographic article about the discovery of the wreckage.
“I had never heard of the Titanic before,” said Merritt, who portrays one of his heroes, ship designer Thomas Andrews. “I saw these pictures of this giant ocean liner on the bottom of the sea, and I just was absolutely fascinated by that story. I started reading everything I could about it.”
He even built an 18-inch model of the ship over Christmas break 1997, during his senior year at the University of Iowa. Naturally, he’s seen the blockbuster movie numerous times, and was thrilled to stumble upon a Titanic exhibition during a Las Vegas trip. He was even more gobsmacked to discover a large piece of the ship on display.
“It was crazy that I had been a fan of this ship and this story for so long at that point, and now I was face to face with a piece of the actual thing,” he said.
Even though it’s been 110 years since the Titanic struck an iceberg and sank in the frigid North Atlantic Ocean, the story continues to resonate.
“I think that it’s very easy to picture yourself,” Merritt said. “If you were faced with that dilemma — the idea of wow, this ship that was deemed unsinkable, and suddenly it’s going down and you have only a couple of hours.
“It’s just so fascinating how the different people reacted. The way that the crew reacted; the way that the passengers reacted; the (idea that) there weren’t enough lifeboats on the ship. There was just a different mentality back then,” he said.
“I don’t know what would happen if a situation like that happened today. We talked about this in rehearsal a few times, that for some of the people on that ship, there was a certain gallantry about going down with it. The captain stayed on the ship, Thomas Andrews stayed on the ship.
“It's fascinating, and it’s terrifying,” he added. “And it represents both what humankind is capable of achieving, because the Titanic was the largest moving object in the world at that time. At the same time, it also demonstrates how small we are, because in the blink of an eye, Mother Nature just demolished it.”
“There’s just so many fascinating angles to the story of the Titanic, and that is why it has hung around for as long as it has.”
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