NEW YORK — Before its tragic end made it a symbol for disaster, the great ship Titanic was a symbol of everything the recently dawned 20th century was supposed to stand for: excitement, extravagance, immensity of size and ambition, and above all the technological advances that made "progress" a watchword of the modern age.
The stage musical "Titanic," which opened at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre April 23, the 85th anniversary of the ship's demise, proves the 20th century hasn't changed a bit.
True, today's proclivity for speed has made jetliners rather than ocean liners the preferred mode of long-distance travel. But the show called "Titanic" is selling pretty much the same bill of goods that made the ship called Titanic a phenomenon before it was even launched.
From its lavish costumes and sumptuous sets to its colorful lighting and computerized special effects, it's a celebration of entertainment on the most extravagant scale. Its excitement is generated partly by real merit: Often the music is appealing, the acting is lively, and the subject is still fascinating.
But more important is the sheer immensity of the spectacle, probably the season's most expensive Broadway production. This hugeness allows audiences to feel the same sort of satisfaction the Titanic's passengers must have felt as they boarded "the largest moving object in the world."
And with it comes a kind of suspense no less-ambitious show can offer. Will this high-tech marvel reach its final curtain without a mishap? Or will computer gremlins sabotage the grand finale - as reportedly happened during previews - and make the stagebound ship as unsinkable as Molly Brown, the real Titanic's most famous survivor?
Timely trouble-shooting appears to have minimized the prospect of such glitches well before the show's opening. In any case, the first act is the best portion of the evening. It's fun sharing the enthusiasm of the ship's eager passengers, the idealism of its thoughtful designer, the maturity of its seasoned captain.
Adding drama to the story are conflicts between the well-meaning captain and the heedless capitalist whose company owns the ship - and whose greediness for publicity, according to the script, is what pushes the Titanic into an ice field at dangerous speed. Also memorable are the self-doubting words of a ship officer who's poignantly unsure of his abilities. Other characters are funny: a second-class passenger who's determined to invade the first-class accommodations, for instance, and romantic couples more interested in each other than the legendary ship.
Act I ends as the Titanic encounters its iceberg in a panoramic tableau worthy of a Hollywood epic. Act II begins with a passenger's startled realization that the ship's engines have inexplicably stopped, and it moves from there to the tragedy's aftermath - survivors huddled in blankets after their lifeboats have been rescued - at a pace too deliberate to sustain the high energy of the show's first half.
It took hours for the Titanic to sink, and playwright Peter Stone and director Richard Jones try to milk this slow-motion catastrophe for all the melodrama it's worth, stringing it out with uninspired diversions - comments by assorted travelers, a sentimental duet between senior citizens. Some of the staging is clever, as when ill-fated shipmates are framed in portholes as if they were already mere snapshots from the past. But few moments of Act II match the imaginative bustle that makes the earlier scenes so effective.
Maury Yeston wrote the music and lyrics, often spiced with pulsing rhythms that suit the story's seaborne spirit. Stewart Laing designed the multileveled sets, which take on a dreamlike strangeness as the Titanic tilts ever more drastically on its way down. The cast is uniformly good, with particularly strong work by John Cunningham as the captain, Michael Cerveris as the designer, David Garrison as the owner, David Costabile as the first officer, Martin Moran as the radio operator, and especially Victoria Clark as the second-class passenger yearning for more.
"Titanic" would be a more substantial show if it worried less about technological effects and delved more deeply into some of the social issues it raises: 20th-century obsessions with speed and scale, the place of immigration in American life, the weaknesses of a democracy just generous enough to allow different classes into the same vessel but not into the same accommodations - or lifeboats, for that matter.
Although the musical is enjoyable on its own oversized terms, some may leave its underwhelming second act wondering if such an extravaganza is worth all the money and energy that went into it. And there's more to come: Filmmaker James Cameron's superexpensive "Titanic" is steaming our way from Hollywood with a record-breaking budget, already so cumbersome that the opening may be delayed from July until next fall.