‘Titanic’ musical at Serenbe explores innovation then and now

When the Titanic set sail on April 10, 1912, heading from Southampton, England, to New York, it was one of the largest ocean liners the world had seen.

Its voyage was chronicled in newspapers around the world, including The Atlanta Constitution, which devoted virtually the entire front page on April 16, 1912, to covering the toll after it sank. With more than 2,000 people onboard — from wealthy businessmen to lady's maids — the Titanic held each one of their dreams to be a part of something bigger than themselves.

The idea of being a part of something greater resonated with Serenbe Playhouse artistic director Brian Clowdus, which is why he decided to stage “Titanic, the Musical” at the Inn Lake at Serenbe.

“When I’m planning each season, I always choose an anchor show, and this year, ‘Titanic’ felt completely right,” Clowdus said. “‘Titanic’ is a story about hope and journey. In the place that we are in, around the nation and the world, a story of hope is very current.”

Clowdus said that he has dreamed of producing this show since seeing the original Broadway production in 1997, which won five Tony Awards. The movie, “Titanic,” which pretty much swept the 1998 Academy Awards, was released the same year, but Clowdus wants to make sure people know that the movie and the musical are totally different.

“The movie follows a couple’s love story and uses the Titanic as a backdrop,” Clowdus said. “The musical gives a snapshot of every person on the ship. The movie chronicled the way it sunk pretty accurately, and that’s something we’re trying to follow. But the musical is about everyone.”

To stage this show, the team at Serenbe had the huge undertaking of building a ship and sinking it. They launched the “Building the Titanic” campaign last November to fund the show, and then the Home Depot Foundation came in as a sponsor. Set designer Adam Koch wanted to capture the anticipation of building the ship as well as the grandeur and excitement of the luxury ocean liner that captured the world’s attention.

“The central image of the show is the ship — the ship being the ultimate symbol of the journey of life and death,” Koch said. “Everyone is on a journey in this show, and as in any musical, the journey is circular. The idea of a skeletal ship when you arrive transforming into the grand ship we all imagine and then back into a skeleton became a goal of ours, artistically and functionally.”

>> RELATED: Theater review: Serenbe Playhouse's 'Peter Pan' sequel is soaring and fun

Of course, Serenbe Playhouse is known for producing lavish outdoor theater — they flew in a helicopter for the 2016 production of "Miss Saigon." The company consulted with engineers, a stunt coordinator, Actors' Equity and a lifeguard to ensure that the "Titanic" set was sturdy before getting the cast onstage. With an ensemble of 40 actors, many of which are Atlanta theater mainstays, this is still the most ambitious production to date.

Some of the characters are based on real people who were onboard the ship, and others are representative of types of people who lost their lives the fateful evening when the Titanic encountered an iceberg. India Tyree, whom audiences may recognize from Serenbe's productions of "Grease" and "The Little Mermaid," plays a third-class passenger, Kate, who dreams of a better life in America. Tyree completed an apprenticeship at Aurora Theatre after graduating from Old Dominion University in 2015 with a degree in theater, and now calls Atlanta home.

“I think everyone on the ship wants more, regardless of their class,” she said. “It reminds me of people who are still trying to reach this country to experience freedom.”

Eric McNaughton, theater director at the Marist School, is taking on the role of Capt. Edward Smith as his first role onstage in Atlanta in 13 years. The Titanic was meant to be Smith’s final voyage before retiring, and he was known as the millionaire’s captain for often leading trips like this one. McNaughton has directed “Titanic” twice at Marist and saw the original Broadway production, but to prepare for this role, he researched the real-life captain.

“The traditional portrayal of him is a very staunch, stalwart, in-control person who was a clear head in a tough time,” McNaughton said. “However, there’s a lot of literature that suggests that he might have been falling apart toward the end.”

For Clowdus, his goal is to get into the audience’s heads and hearts, “so that when the ship hits the iceberg, it truly is shocking.” The final song of the show starts with the line “In ev’ry age, mankind attempts to fabricate great works at once magnificent and impossible.” At Serenbe, they are applying that same spirit of innovation to creating a live theater experience that no other producer of this musical has attempted before.

“The beauty of being outdoors and watching this unfold is going to be extraordinary,” McNaughton said. “It’s technically stunning, and the cast is bringing the individual stories and personal histories of these people to life in a really beautiful way. And I’ll say, bring your tissues for the finale, because it’s breathtaking.”


“Titanic, the Musical”

Through Aug. 12. $30-$53. The Inn at Serenbe, 10950 Hutcheson Ferry Road, Chattahoochee Hills. All performances take place outdoors — rain or shine. SerenbePlayhouse.com.