LONG AGO I STUMBLED ACROSS THE SECRET TO everlasting happiness: Always laugh at tragedy. This profound, Zen-like dictum guarantees a life filled with joy, mirth, and merriment. Following this rule I have sailed through life with a smile on my lips and a song in my heart--and in my pocket, a long list of folks who think I'm the most jaded bastard they've ever met. I've never understood why people get so upset by my dead baby jokes. It's the small bits of comedy, the snippets of good cheer that can be found in mass suicide, murder, and miscarriage that keep me sane and productive.

So not surprisingly, when I heard that Titanic: A New Musical was opening on Broadway, it seemed too good to be true. For someone as tickled by tragedy as I am, Titanic promised to be a regular laugh riot. But the more I thought about it--really thought about it--the creepier the whole thing became. I mean, Titanic: A New Musical? What were they thinking? Poking good-natured fun at life's darker side is one thing, but setting it to music, choreographing it, and charging $50 to gawk at it is quite another. Even to someone with a sense of humor as morbid as mine, it just seems wrong to turn the specter of 1,500 people sucked screaming into icy, watery graves into a bright, smarmy song and dance extravaganza. I mean, what's next? Auschwitz! starring Tommy Tune? Typhoid Mary with Bernadette Peters? The Inquisition, cast of thousands? But as unbelievably gruesome as it may be, Titanic: A New Musical sailed into Seattle's Fifth Avenue Theater like some Love Boat of the Damned destined to sink, night after night, through April 18th.

Arriving hot on the heels of the most popular movie ever, Titanic: A New Musical has 10 times the vibrato and none of the plot. As thin as the film's teeny-bopper love story was, it added a level of character development, a sense of urgency, and a feeling of tragedy that is sorely lacking from the stage production. In place of moving, powerful, engaging characters, we are presented with Titanic's famous and not-so-famous passengers and crew parading upon the stage, chorus line fashion, belting out extremely loud and not very memorable songs that blend classical music affectations with trite, unmoving lyrics. Through these deafening numbers we discover that the Astors are rich, the Irish girls are pregnant, and the passengers in second class are social-climbing nitwits.

Titanic never evolves past these superficial caricatures. Subsequently we never connect with the characters emotionally, and couldn't give a rat's ass when the big barge goes belly-up. And without a tousle-haired teen heartthrob bridging the class gap between the long-suffering steerage passengers and the über-snobs up top, the story line is divided into three distinct levels: (1) Irish peasants drowning like rats; (2) middle-class hardware store owners drowning like rats; and (3) upper-class women sitting in boats watching everyone else drown like rats. And none of them seem to be very upset about it. They just keep on singing.

The lack of plot and character development is a great disservice not only to the audience, but to the wildly talented cast, who are never given a chance to shine. Brief moments in the spotlight afforded dreamy Marcus Chait, as the lovelorn engine stoker, and Melissa Bell, as the pregnant Irish lass, don't allow any opportunity to explore the characters' humanity, or the actors' talents. Nevertheless, the cast bravely rides Titanic's roughest waters, making the most of what they are given and proving that they have the guts, if not the glory. David Beditz and Liz McConahay are fun as the hardware store owner and his nosy, carping Gladys Kravitz-esque wife, but in the end, the superficiality of the characters makes them more irritating than compelling. By play's end, this sinking seems less a tragedy and more an act of karma.

The most disappointing aspect of the play is its decided lack of special effects. Titanic: A New Musical attempts to retell the legend of the ill-fated maiden voyage of the World's Largest Moving Object without even attempting to recreate the Object in question. We are left to surmise the enormity of that huge ship ('twarnt called Titanic for nuthin'!) in the opening number, when boarding crew and passengers sing a song that tries to pass off the ship's stats as lyrics (OH! Great Ti-tan-ic! FIF-ty thou-sand yards in leeeeeeength!). They then stop, aghast, to wonder at its scale, leaving the burden of proof to the audience's imagination. The ship's hallmark, luxury, was completely absent, done no justice by the bare, almost spartan sets. The actual sinking of the ship is accomplished with a hydraulic lift, a 30-degree angle, and a black curtain--meant to symbolize the frigid waters of the Atlantic--that rises to encompass the doomed vessel. A curtain. So much for the magic of theater.

Had the score been memorable, the story line existent, or the characters strong, the lack of technical grandeur would have been compensated for, and perhaps even forgivable. But, as it stands, Titanic doesn't "sail into history." It sinks.

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