High School Project participants buoyed amid tragedy in Titanic: The Musical

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The first — and last — voyage of the Titanic may seem like an odd choice for a stage musical, especially considering the 1997 James Cameron motion picture about the same doomed trip still looms large in the public imagination.

But the creative team putting together Titanic: The Musical for a Grand Theatre run, in preview Thursday and opening Friday, says its version of the story focuses on the hopes and dreams of the passengers who left Southampton, England, on April 10, 1912, and then — after the ship collided with an iceberg four days later — perished in the maritime disaster, made even more shocking by how far the boat’s builders had gone to convince the public the Titanic was unsinkable.

It may also seem like an odd choice for the Grand’s annual High School Project, when you consider the performers are bursting with youthful energy and optimism. The 49-member cast may be dressed in Edwardian costumes — including bonnets, boas, bow ties and boater hats — but their zeal is undeniable.

Titanic The Musical is being performed by high school students at The Grand Theatre in London. (Derek Ruttan/The London Free Press)

“It is a sad story. I do die,” said Matthew Pironaggi, by which he means his theatrical alter ego, third officer Herbert J. Pitman. The 16-year-old, a Grade 11 student at Catholic Central secondary school, says even though the fate of the people on the Titanic is well-known, his death scene is “heartbreaking.”

Pironaggi is also a member of the Original Kids Theatre Company, but this was his first time auditioning for the High School Project.

“It’s been a very great experience,” he said. “I love theatre . . . the atmosphere you get to walk on stage.”

He says audiences will notice how much enjoyment the cast gets out of playing their characters.

A number like Doin’ the Latest Rag in the first act not only showcases the cast’s vitality, but also reminds theatregoers that at one point in history, jazz music was considered scandalous.

Titanic The Musical is being performed by high school students at The Grand Theatre in London. (Derek Ruttan/The London Free Press)

“This was like their Top 40,” explained Julia Telfer, the 15-year-old Parkside Collegiate Institute student from St. Thomas who plays one of the Titanic’s band members.

Then again, the violin she mimes playing during the jazz interlude is also a reminder that soon passengers will be scrambling for the lifeboats, and the orchestra’s members will go down with the ship as they play their instruments to keep everyone calm.

This is Telfer’s first High School Project. “It’s so much time commitment,” she said of the hours of rehearsals that started in August. “It’s really all worth it.”

Telfer says she loves being on stage and the centre of the crowd’s attention. “It’s the payoff.”

She hopes to continue in theatre as an adult.

Titanic: The Musical is directed by Andrew Tribe of London. More than 160 students from both the Thames Valley District and London District Catholic school boards auditioned over eight days. Thirty students were interviewed over three days for 20 production positions. There are 39 High School Project newbies and 34 returning students.

If you go

What: The High School Project’s Titanic: The Musical

Where: Grand Theatre, 471 Richmond St.

When: Previews Thursday, opens Friday, runs to Sept. 28

Tickets: $25-$40, available at the box office, online at grandtheatre.com or 519-672-8800