The April night has brought with it a chill, and on the deck of the Titanic an older man asks his wife of 40 years if she'd like him to go and fetch her fur. She knows that their vessel is too large and her husband too forgettable for that to reasonably happen but he's posed the question anyway.
"And never see you again?" she asks. "I'd rather freeze to death."
Only one or two chuckles came from the crowd at Signature Theatre in Arlington Tuesday night at this darkly ironic line. Yes, we all knew that this woman, come the musical that night, would probably die in just that manner. But more than a laugh line, that little response stood out because it's indicative of the great accomplishment of Titanic— to take one of the most famous tragedies of modern history and form a subtle, smart and emotion-packed narrative around it. We all know the story, we know what's coming, yet the construction of this production is so good, especially in act two, that when it arrives it strikes hard and suddenly, like an iceberg in the night.
To be clear for all you Jack and Rose fans out there, this Titanic is nothing like the movie. Instead, the scope gets a bit bigger and the storylines grow more complex. Instead of two star-crossed lovers, the Tony-award winning show focuses instead on a number of passengers aboard the ship, each with their own reasons for being there. There's the Beane couple in second class, one of whom dreams of mingling with the first class millionaires and the other who wants her to wake up a bit. There's the captain, leading the great maiden voyage as his last act before retirement. There's the three Irish women, all named Kate, all headed to America with different dreams.
And this is just a sample size. The plot is certainly ambitious and much of the first act is setting up the multitude of stories that boarded the ship that April day. The flaw with the first half then, much like the fate of the ship, is unavoidable. Some of these storylines just aren't as interesting as others and the equal time paid to all makes the first hour or so of the script feel stagnant at times. Outside of a strong opening number and nice song called "The Proposal/The Night Was Alive," there isn't too much to remember long after intermission.
Luckily, Signature tackles the musical with typical quality and grace. From the set design to the lighting to the effects, the whole thing feels wonderfully grand in a theater that seats an intimate 350. A 17-piece orchestra accompanies the production, drawing as much clarity and power as possible from the more traditional, somewhat dull songs, and rousing strong emotion from the rest. The cast, too, puts in great ensemble work—outside of a few iffy accents there isn't a real flaw to be found.
This Titanic is in ways a very traditional musical, but the Signature makes it feel like a unique theater-going experience. When an imperfect first act gives way to a second one that is sure to impress any audience member, the night is not only saved but also deemed a success.
Titanic will be showing at the Signature Theatre until Jan. 29, 2017.