Many ships have sunk, but few nautical disasters have captured the world’s imagination as much as the Titanic. The luxury ship, considered “unsinkable,” hit an iceberg on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England to New York in April 1912 and descended into the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean, resulting in the deaths of about 1,500 people.
The tragic event has spawned documentaries, exhibits and movies, most famously — perhaps — the 1997 film starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio.
The difference between that movie and the Tony Award-winning musical “Titanic,” by Maury Yeston and Peter Stone, is that the show is based on fact and real characters.
Highwood Theatre is staging the show in an authorized ensemble version. The cast of 20 is smaller than the original, with each ensemble actor playing at two or three parts, said West Remy, a 10th-grade student staff member at Highwood.
He is co-directing the all-student production with Kevin Kearney, Highwood’s executive director. The actors are drawn from second through 11th grade; the production team consists of student directors, stage managers and designers.
The orchestrations are “stripped down,” with a keyboard rather than full orchestra, Remy said. “But it’s the same story with the same characters; all the individual are there.”
Larisa Jeffers is one of the ensemble performers, playing ship Officer Lightoller, millionaire John Jacob Astor and a third-class passenger. A fourth grader at Oak View Elementary, she’s already a “veteran” actor, having appeared in productions of “School of Rock” and “Bye Bye Birdie.”
Jeffers said she likes performing at Highwood because she gets to do what she loves and “immerse” her talents in an atmosphere that “seems like having a second family.”
Acting in general and in “Titanic” specifically is appealing because they “tell a story,” she said. Taking on such a dramatically and musically challenging musical is “fun” rather than intimidating for the young actors, said Remy.
“Although the show takes some liberty with the real-life characters, the actors can research them and blend what they find with their own take,” Remy said.
“We believe,” added Kearney, “that students deserve to do real shows they can relate to and get invested in.”
Staging Titanic has been much more than a purely theatrical experience, he said.
“I knew about the Titanic as the unsinkable ship that sank,” said Jeffers. “But the show really let us learn more about the ship and let me see what the passengers were going through.”
One thing the musical emphasizes is the very different experience passengers had on the ship, depending on what class they were in, which tragically affected the likelihood they would live or die.
The learning was impactful on the adults as well.
“I actually didn’t know too much at all about the Titanic before the show, other than seeing one production and the movie,” said Kearney. “The background research – from the characters to the layout of the ship to the actual weather on the specific days in the story – has been really important in developing our vision for the show, and in the practical set and technical elements.”
The co-directors also designed the set with elements that are “complicated and difficult,” Kearney said. “Plus, our production is 4D – focusing on bringing the audience into the story and allowing them to feel emotions along with the characters – and involve their own emotions.”
For all the complications, he said, “watching the performers work together to create a moving story is amazing to see.”
“Titanic” has a limited two-weekend engagement, March 15-17 and March 22-24 at Highwood Theatre, 914 Silver Spring Avenue, Silver Spring. For tickets, visit www.thehighwoodtheatre.org/tickets. 301-567-0697.