'Titanic' is neither as good nor as bad as you want it to be. So much about it is intelligent that you want it to be better. Failing that, you want it to be godawful, like "Carrie," so you could dine out on it forever.
For the most part, however, "Titanic" is somewhere in the middle.
"Titanic" is better than its weeks of pre-opening gossip would lead you to believe the score is solid, the book gives the story focus, and the actors give their all. But the result never achieves what you feel the show is constantly striving for the tragic fall of an age's aspirations.
The show's strongest moment is the first, where the crew and the passengers, class by class, line up to board the "ship of dreams." The stage is dominated by a gangplank with the proud letters "White Star Line." Maury Yeston's opening number, though essentially a declaration of hubris, grows and grows in complexity, until its final chorus, with a stage full of 40 people singing powerfully, fairly soars.
The number is so strong, the expectations it raises so high that you almost force yourself to ignore the shockingly vulgar colors of the cheap-looking costumes. Better things, you assume, are in store. Alas, they're not.
The weakest thing about the show is its look. Stewart Laing, who designed both sets and costumes, has created sets that are largely characterless. When the lyrics and book constantly stress the opulence of the boat, you want to see it you never do.
There are some nice touches: Late in the second act, there's a scene where the third-class passengers realize the stairs to the lifeboats are blocked. The perspective shifts and it's as if we're at the bottom of the spiraling staircases. The actors peep out from the sides, and their little heads against the backdrop give a forlorn effect, an imaginative moment.
But the sets do not propel the action along, and, much of the time, neither does the material. In the first act, bookwriter Peter Stone gives us thumbnail sketches of the passengers. Seldom do we get beyond the two-dimensional or what we already know.
A well-known fact is that Ida Strauss refused to leave her husband of 40 years, Isidor, the Macy's heir, and so they died together. Yeston gives them a lovely duet and Stone has given them a great piece of business after they toast each other with champagne, Strauss wraps the glass in a napkin and breaks it, a touching echo of their wedding ceremony. There are too few touches like this.
The second act shows the events following the crash, and it simply lacks momentum. Director Richard Jones gets strong work from his actors, but there is no sense of mounting urgency. There is a good choral number as the women board the lifeboats, but the big moment comes when the ship is at a severe angle and the furniture starts sliding downward. We should care more about the people than we do the furniture.
Whatever the weaknesses of the material, the cast performs superbly. Among the standouts are Michael Cerveris as the ship's agonized designer, Larry Keith and Alma Cuervo as the Strausses, and Alan Corduner as the gracious first-class steward. Brian d'Arcy James sings thrillingly as a stoker, and there are strong solos by Martin Moran as the radio operator and David Elder as the lookout.
John Cunningham is properly stoic as the captain, David Costabile does well as an insecure subordinate, and David Garrison handles the villainy of the ship's owner with a commendable light touch. Ted Sperling sings a touching song, "Autumn," liltingly.
Yeston's lyrics are always literate. The music varies, though it is always orchestrated with great refinement and drama by Jonathan Tunick. Some of the numbers, like a rag, just don't work, but the whole thing will probably come off better on the cast album than it does on stage.
What's sad about "Titanic" is that it shows flashes of what it could have been. It ends with the same song it began with, as if to acknowledge that the promise of the opening has never been fulfilled.
The vultures had been salivating over this one for months. How could they not have been?
All those stories of production-freezing technical glitches in previews; the reported rumors that the show might not even open; and, beyond all that, the mere fact of a $10 million musical called ''Titanic,'' a singing-and-dancing rendition of the century's most famous maritime disaster: yes, it all seemed to portend a memorably bloody chapter in the history of flops on Broadway.
Theater disaster cultists will have to wait, however, as will headline writers armed with scalpels and the obvious puns. ''Titanic,'' which opened on schedule last night at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater, doesn't sink. Unfortunately, that is also probably the most exciting thing that can be said about it.
At its worst, this extremely ambitious, er, vehicle is simply hokey and stereotyped; at its best, it's an admirably efficient piece of narrative, able to squeeze in a vast roster of characters, assorted chunks of technological and historical information, slews of statistics and themes ranging from class conflict to human hubris, all with minimal confusion.
Yet the show, with songs by Maury Yeston and a book by Peter Stone, never seems to leave port. Under the guidance of the British director Richard Jones, with technically astonishing sets by Stewart Laing, ''Titanic'' fails to capitalize on the two obvious trump cards its subject has dealt it: sentimentality and suspense.
It's a perversely cool work, cerebral without being particularly imaginative or insightful. Most often, it feels like a singing blueprint, still waiting to achieve the third dimension.
Like the builders of the ship that gives the show its name, the talents behind ''Titanic'' have worked hard to create something of epic scope and technological wonder. Few of the metaphoric implications of this fatal ocean voyage, an endless source of historic and literary contemplation since it took place in 1912, have been neglected.
Song after song points out what the liner represented to its creators, staff and passengers: it is, as the lyrics say repeatedly, a ''ship of dreams,'' embodying diverse hopes of progress both social and scientific.
The show is indeed masterly in establishing the different forms this collective fantasy takes, from the vision of its designer, Thomas Andrews (Michael Cerveris), who compares the ship to things like the Sistine Chapel and the great pyramids, to the immigrants in steerage who imagine new possibilities of self-advancement.
Mr. Laing's ingenious sets and costumes mirror precisely the musical's thematic patterns while meticulously charting the progress of the voyage. With its series of sliding panels that reveal different tiers of the set, the show has a sophisticated look that is all about stratification, even representing the three passenger classes simultaneously. The captain's bridge floats above all this, while L.C.D. panels on either side of the stage state the time, date, even the latitude and longitude.
Much of the scenic mood is sterile, however, conjured by painted flat scrims that often resemble an architect's drawings. And you can feel the audience waiting for a chance to applaud the scenery, for the visual opulence of a ''Sunset Boulevard.'' It comes only infrequently, most notably with an appearance of the ship's crimson smoking room, which will later provide the occasion for the show's most apocalyptic special effects.
And while the musical impressively creates an immense gallery of clearly established characters, they rarely transcend their symbolic or plot functions. Most of them are based on real people, the same ones described in Walter Lord's brief, compelling ''Night to Remember'' (1955), yet they never achieve the hauntingly specific identity and complexity that Mr. Lord's book was able to evoke with only a few details.
It's not that the cast isn't more than competent. But in fixing the characters as points on a social graph, the show almost invariably opts for the most basic stereotypes. J. Bruce Ismay (David Garrison), the managing director of the White Star line of ships to which the Titanic belonged, is here a smarmy, arrogant villain of a businessman, urging Capt. E. J. Smith (John Cunningham), to take the vessel to dangerous speeds.
Mr. Cerveris portrays the ship's designer with a febrile manner and intense, biting diction that bring to mind a brainy B-movie mad scientist. Mr. Cunningham, a first-rate actor, seems to get lost behind the captain's beard. And most of the passengers (Becky Ann Baker as a rich, steamroller feminist is an exception) aren't allowed to be much more than participants in a history pageant.
Mr. Yeston, who did the appealing score for ''Nine,'' seems less confident here. There is evidence of intelligence and variety in the music (which often has a ''Sweeney Todd''-meets-''Jaws'' ominousness), but very little emotional pull, barring some full-throated anthemic chorales.
There is one song that manages to meld an affecting and vivid sense of the individual with the work's broader thematic sweep: a duet in which the ship's radio operator and one of its stokers (Martin Moran and Brian d'Arcy James, both excellent) sing of their respective obsessions with modern technology and the girl waiting at home.
But the number that should be the climactic tear-jerker, a rather grotesque Sigmund Romberg-ish love song between the long-married Isidore and Ida Straus (Larry Keith and Alma Cuervo) as the boat sinks, feels shoehorned in. It's as if someone suddenly remembered, ''Oops, we need a little bathos, don't we?''
Indeed, the whole show seems assembled according to a packed roster of themes, musical elements and factual data (of which there is an unwieldy amount). These have all been covered most thoroughly, but at the expense of emotional engagement, as if one were looking at this assortment of doomed souls through a telescope and at considerable distance.
Mr. Jones's geometric staging doesn't help. As he demonstrated in his production of ''All's Well That Ends Well'' for the New York Shakespeare Festival, he has a fondness for linear formations, assembling his cast members in long rows, a bit like those medieval Scandinavians marching toward death in Ingmar Bergman's ''Seventh Seal.''
This may generate cosmic resonance, a sense of humanity sliding into the great sea of mortality, but it doesn't stir up much vicarious anxiety or sympathy. Unless you're allowed to know the victims of any catastrophe, they will remain statistics. With this ''Titanic'' your heart doesn't, as it has to, go down with ship.
Neither disaster nor marvel, "Titanic" navigates a middle course that generally avoids obstacles as surely as it veers clear of anything particularly memorable. A $ 10 million spectacle musical without spectacle, the season's most expensive Broadway production features a pleasantly operatic score by Maury Yeston, a decent enough book by Peter Stone and some graceful (if doggedly untheatrical) direction by Richard Jones. None of which answers the question that has been floating around since 1912: Why, exactly, did this happen?
Essentially a disaster movie set to music, "Titanic" seems to have no real purpose --- no convincing character drama that compels the action, no theme or message beyond some obvious notions about class distinction --- and so is left cruising to its famous fate, pulling the audience along with the promise of the Big Moment. When word spreads that the moment never arrives --- at least onstage --- and that the much-ballyhooed special effects are decidedly unspecial, "Titanic's" biggest iceberg will be the challenge of convincing ticketbuyers to come aboard. Played, for the most part, on a set that is surprisingly modest --- pretty, but modest --- "Titanic" has a painterly design that, truth be told, has more charm than all the hydraulics money can buy. And yet too often the production seems more cinematic (the word flat comes to mind) than theatrical. Much of the action is seen through rectangular openings in a large black wall; the ship's bridge, for example, where the officers steer the course, stretches across the top of the wall, while other windows open below to show third-class steerage, a first-class smoking lounge, the boiler room and other ship locales. At any given time, one or more windows might be open, each tableau beautifully lit with its own color scheme, the overall effect being a lovely Mondrian design of squares and rectangles. The window device allows for the simultaneous playing of various storylines. The plot formula here will be recognizable to any devotee of 1970s disaster flicks: Characters from all walks of life find commonality when faced with crisis. So we have the greedy ship owner unconcerned with safety (see the mayor in "Jaws"), the nervous engineer whose warnings go unheeded (the architect in "The Towering Inferno"), stuffy millionaires, stalwart workers and a funny Indiana housewife (Victoria Clark), through whose eyes the audience can view the glitzy goings-on. One subplot involves a young, unmarried and pregnant Irish lass (Jennifer Piech) and her romance with a strapping young lad (Clarke Thorell), but for the most part the storylines, such as they are, are merely character snapshots (uniformly well sung and acted): the loving Isidor and Ida Straus (Larry Keith and Alma Cuervo), the wealthy owners of Macy's department store; the rich J.J. Astor (William Youmans) and his 19-year-old wife, Madeline (Lisa Datz); a lovesick coal stoker (Brian d'Arcy James); a radio man smitten with new technology (Martin Moran), and numerous others. None are given detailed plots, and few boast more than a single identifiable trait. The luckiest of the bunch are, however, handed some engaging music. The coal stoker does well with "Barrett's Song," the pregnant Kate sings about her American dreams in "Lady's Maid," and the Strauses sing a love-in-the-sunset-years ballad, "Still." These songs stand out because they are most clearly songs, distinct from the operatic medleys and ensemble numbers that make up much of "Titanic's" big-throated, heroic-scale score. Where "Titanic" differs from the bigscreen genre is in the depiction of the disaster itself. Is it a surprise that no one here --- director, set designer, writers --- has figured out a thrilling way to sink the Titanic? If not a surprise, at least a disappointment: When the moment comes, the black wall rises to reveal a toy-boat-size model moving across the stage, an effect seemingly intended to be the theatrical equivalent of a movie's long shot but more along the lines of Spinal Tap's ludicrously miniature Stonehenge. As it exits into the wings, we hear a crash. No iceberg, no water, no drama. The second act depicts the gradual realization among the passengers that the unthinkable has happened to the unsinkable. Gathered in the Grand Salon, many in their pajamas (the period costumes throughout are first-rate), the laughing, scoffing passengers fall silent when a liquor cart starts rolling from one end of the stage to the other --- one of the few moments in the musical that captures an eerie mood. Soon, we see the same rooms from the first act, only now they're tilted at ever-increasing angles. After some characters disembark on lifeboats, those left behind move to the top of the angled deck (this may be the most orderly disaster in maritime history), while below, the young engineer demonstrates with a model what is happening to the ship. The angled deck is all we see of the sinking. The set goes dark, the lights come up and a group of survivors, wrapped in S.S. Carpathia blankets, line up at stage's edge to tell the audience what happened --- the screams, floating deck chairs, etc. The special effects --- and, one must assume, the production's cost --- are much like an iceberg: Only the tip is on view. The hydraulic machinery beneath the stage might indeed be a great technological achievement,but if "Sunset Boulevard's" floating Hollywood mansion wasn't enough to entice ticketbuyers, will a lopsided deck? Indeed, producers might be well advised to 'fess up and market "Titanic" for what it really is: an overly developed chamber musical with an amiable score, a visual production at its best when at its simplest, a ship that neither sinks nor ever really sets sail.