The mighty voice of  Ben Heppner, Canada’s opera superstar, is heard on board the mighty ship currently sailing on stage at Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre.

Over his career, Heppner has performed some of the most iconic roles in opera with the world’s top orchestras and at the most acclaimed opera venues — including New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, London’s Covent Garden, the Vienna State Opera and the Canadian Opera Company — both in stage productions as well as in concerts or recitals. He has also released a host of recordings, winning Grammy and Juno awards.  The tenor also hosts two programs on CBC radio, “Saturday Afternoon at the Opera” and “Backstage.”

Unexpectedly a year ago, the renowned heldentenor announced a career change, expressing interest in musical theatre. Talking with theatre producer David Mirvish, Heppner mentioned he’d love to do some acting in a Mirvish show. “I never thought that David might take me seriously,” Heppner said. “I’m totally pumped to climb aboard the production of Titanic the musical. Just think, I get to sail onstage again without having to drink Isolde’s poison or wear Viking horns! And I get to play a captain of industry – Isidor Straus to boot. How cool is that!”

Among his many accomplishments and business holdings, Isidor Straus, a prominent U.S. politician and businessman was the co-owner of Macy’s department store. With his wife Ida, he was among the wealthy and famous members of society who wanted to be the first to sail on the maiden voyage of the unsinkable RMS Titanic.

In this reimagining of the 1997 Broadway musical, director Thom Southerland uses an ensemble cast, where actors play two or three or more roles in the telling of the story. Besides playing Straus, Heppner inhabits  three other roles. Basically a member of the ensemble cast (he doesn’t have star billing in the playbill), Heppner’s only featured appearance is with Judith Street (as his wife Ida) in the solo/duet “Still,” an emotional song remembrance of their long life together.  His booming voice sets off a chorus of “bravos” from an appreciative audience.

The haunting tragedy of the great ship is transformed by composer and lyricist Maury Yeston (“Nine,” “Grand Hotel”) and book writer Peter Stone (musicals “Woman of the Year” and “1776”; film “Charade”) into a riveting musical in which the hopes and dreams of rich and poor, heroes and cowards, lovers and foes are woven together in a celebration of the human spirit.

In the final hour of April 14, 1912 the RMS Titanic, on her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, collided with an iceberg in one of the most tragic disasters of the 20th Century. Based on actual characters aboard the greatest ship in the world, this adroitly staged musical focuses on their hopes and aspirations. Unaware of the fate that awaits them, the Third Class immigrants dream of a better life in America, the newly-enfranchised Second Class dream of achieving the lifestyles of the rich and famous, and the millionaires of the First Class dream of their gilded world lasting forever.

With minimalist staging, British director Southerland’s acclaimed production comes direct from London for its North American premiere in Toronto.  Its an affecting chamber piece playing to its not-inconsiderable strengths linked to Yeston’s tuneful and effervescent score, which quote traditional songs, and a narrative nicely entwining the stubborn ambition of White Star line director, J. Bruce Ismay to build a floating city to rival the great cathedrals or Stonehenge, with the smaller dreams of the third-class passenger. It’s ironic most of those who perished were travelling to America to make new and better lives for themselves. A touching scene highlights characters who optimistically disclose their hopes to become a lady’s maid or own a shop. Its a musical giving the unheard and forgotten a voice. With creative reverence the names of all those who lost their lives are projected on a stage backdrop at the show’s finale. It’s a soulful touch; the music turning to eloquent silence as the survivors – broken, battered but alive – gather on the deck of the rescue ship to contemplate their losses.

Titanic plays like an old-school Broadway show, blending fractured emotions and flowing sentimentality.  The classiness of the book and the beautifully sung score avoids the maudlin, keeping things simple and fluid on the cleverly austere stage design. Notable too is some exhilarating work from a first-class ensemble (though I feel it almost unfair to mention individual performances, except that of Ben Heppner).

While the original Broadway production was a lavish affair, Thom Southerland’s revival is  elegantly simple with minimalist composition. The scale of the ship intimates, rather than imitates, using a spare collection of ropes, rails and a mobile platform. All other effects are achieved with effective lighting. The cast is pared-down too, moving from first class to third and back again with snappy quick-changes of costume and accent.

Titanic is a musical with a pronounced social agenda. The narrative personalizes the catastrophe by focusing on a quartet of couples based on real passengers: in addition to the elderly Isidore Straus and his devoted wife, Ida, travelling first class, in focus also is a second class wife conflicted by social ambitions which annoy her husband.  Travelling second-class as well is a titled Lady who has eloped with a socially inferior journalist, while in third class, another on-board romance flourishes.

Driven by the notion of the ship as an artefact of human aspiration, bearing its freight of individual hopes and wishes, the deftly staged narrative follows a steady trajectory from the excitement of the maiden voyage, towards its inevitable conclusion.

It was the discovery of the wreckage of the Titanic in 1985 that inspired Maury Yeston to compose his musical about the disaster. It premiered on Broadway in 1997 to mostly poor reviews, but won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Score and Best Book.  Public interest was bouyed by the updraft of publicity surrounding James Cameron’s epic film, which opened in December 1997.

Unlike the nautical disaster that befell the original vessel, this Titanic “ship of dreams” proudly sails on stage of Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre.  The voyage continues through June 21st.

Alex Reynolds

Providing a Fresh Perspective for Burlington and Hamilton.

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