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review

The cast of Titanique at Daryl Roth Theatre.Chad David Kraus/Handout

The unsinkable spirit of Céline Dion is the driving force behind the biggest off-Broadway hit of the season.

In the opening scene of the jukebox musical Titanique, the Québécois superstar emerges from under a hooded cloak to take over a tour of the Titanic Museum – announcing that she is, impossibly, the last living survivor of the passenger line that infamously sank in 1912.

“I’m alive!” Dion sings, breaking into her 2002 hit of that name.

Alan Kliffer: The New York-based Canadian comedy impresario who spotted a hit with Titanique

Titanique, a send-up of the film Titanic that incorporates elements of drag, lip-synching and improvised comedy now on at the Daryl Roth Theatre near New York’s Union Square through May, has a purposefully preposterous premise.

Dion, as incarnated by Broadway veteran Marla Mindelle, has somehow come to believe that she not only sang the theme song for James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster-buster, but was actually on the ill-fated ship itself.

And so, she narrates a ridiculous retelling the story of Jack and Rose’s doomed love affair from the film – peppering it with a selection of songs from her catalogue such as Tell Him, Because You Loved Me, If You Asked Me To and, of course, My Heart Will Go On.

While Titanique is not a Canadian show, it certainly is Canadian-adjacent – centring as it does on Dion, spoofing the work of Ontario-born Cameron, and even featuring Victor Garber as a secondary character (a role, bizarrely, originated by Frankie Grande, the half-brother of Ariana whose career careens between musical theatre, reality television and online influencing).

Indeed, the show advertises itself as what happens when the Dion catalogue “makes sweet Canadian love” with Titanic.

How loving, however, is it toward the Canadian icon – a figure who was regularly the butt of talk-show jokes back when Titanic premiered and, if Rolling Stone’s shocking omission of her from its just-released list of 200 Best Singers of All Time list is any indication, remains a bête noire of music critics.

In this starring role, Mindelle, who also co-wrote Titanique with co-star Constantine Rousouli and director Tye Blue, has Dion’s mannerisms down – the chest bumps, the sky salutes – and has mastered the child-like astonishment that often pops into the singer’s eyes and the silly way she is wont to wiggle across a stage.

She also has the pipes to deliver convincing renditions of Céline’s songs – in their original keys, no less. As for her attempt at Dion’s accent, well, it’s not the worst Québécois I’ve ever heard.

While her portrayal certainly leans into the goofier aspects of Queen Céline’s persona, Mindelle says she and the rest of the creative team have nothing but “love and respect” for the 54-year-old singer.

As for whether that is reciprocal, at the time I spoke with Mindelle in December, Dion had not seen the show herself. But the actress said members of her team had given their blessing after attending, including David Foster, the Canadian producer of many of her chart-toppers, her publicist and some of her backup dancers.

Which is just as well: Because if Titanique had been sharper about the superstar (as was the case with Aline, the recent French film parody of her life that decidedly did not get Dion’s blessing), its heat-seeking box-office momentum might have gone ice cold when Dion revealed at the beginning of December that she had been diagnosed with stiff-person syndrome, a rare neurological disorder, and would be postponing her 2023 tour.

Instead, Mindelle says the singer’s courage in the face of this latest personal adversity has led her not to doubt Titanique – but to perform her version of Dion with greater purpose.

“Sometimes I could get in my own head about embodying her – but I realize that everything I do now, it’s not for myself anymore,” she says.

“I want this show to be a refuge and a vessel for all of her fans who had tickets for their concerts. … And I want her to know that her legacy and literally her heart lives on and on in this show.”

Russell Daniels and John Riddle in Titanique.Chad David Kraus/Handout

Titanique has become quite the cult phenomenon – and has been carefully cultivated as such by lead producer Eva Price, whose Broadway shows include Jagged Little Pill and & Juliet. It started its life in June being performed around improv and comedy shows at a 160-seat basement venue called Asylum NYC. After filling that space to standing room for months, it moved to the bigger 260-seat Daryl Roth in November.

From one angle, the show’s success may seem entirely predictable: Nostalgia for the 1990s is at a new peak, and both Dion, who was ubiquitous in that decade – releasing a whopping 13 records – and Titanic, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary, are major pop-culture phenomena of those years when humanity’s analog past crashed into the iceberg of its digital future.

But Price was initially skeptical about the comic concept of the show and its untested creators until she attended one of its pop-up concerts in Los Angeles as a courtesy to Rousouli, who had starred in a previous off-Broadway show of her titled Cruel Intentions: The ’90s Musical. She found herself laughing more than she had in a long time: “I hadn’t realized what a love letter to Celine and the movie this was going to be.”

With that in mind, Price decided not to invest millions of dollars on a bigger off-Broadway production right away, but to let the show grow through word-of-mouth. “Asylum not only afforded us a very economically viable business plan to open there, it also afforded us the ability to overdeliver on expectations,” she says, of the venue run by (another Canadian connection) Winnipeg-born Alan Kliffer. “And nothing sells a show better than that no one can get a ticket to see it.”

The main challenges of putting on Titanique professionally have had to do with rights. Not to Titanic, which it legally parodies, but to Dion’s songs.

Foster, who worked on many of her seminal albums including Let’s Talk About Love, showed up to a concert reading at Green Room 42 in New York with his lawyers – and left happy to voice his support and lend his tunes to the show. But other well-known songs with a long list of co-writers from the Céline catalogue were either not possible to license – The Power of Love is conspicuously absent – or were already being used in other jukebox musicals (Jim Steinman’s It’s All Coming Back to Me Now is in the Meat Loaf musical Bat Out of Hell).

Surprisingly, Titanique’s producers did land Beauty and the Beast, which is amusingly repurposed to be about Rose and Jack and allows for a walk-on cameo by an actor playing Peabo Bryson, the somewhat forgotten soul singer who sang the radio pop duet version of the Disney song with Dion. “Disney loves theatre, so they were incredibly supportive of that request,” Price says.

Titanique’s voyage after its latest extension to May is to be determined – but not only are there are Broadway producers such as Price (and Dear Evan Hansen composer Benj Pasek) attached, Toronto’s Mirvish Productions has been down to check it out, and impresario-cum-musical-theatre-legend Andrew Lloyd Webber has been to see the show too, perhaps with an eye to producing it in London.

The show is unlikely to ever be a critical darling, what with its camp aesthetic that includes ample punning on the word “seaman” and perhaps a few too many inside jokes relating to past contestants of RuPaul’s Drag Race. (Blue, the show’s co-creator, has worked on that show as a casting director.)

While Titanique is not a Canadian show, it certainly is Canadian-adjacent.Chad David Kraus/Handout

But the opinions of critics aren’t exactly what drove the success of either Titanic or for that matter Dion, whose widespread popularity has been a locus for discussion and dissection of taste, in part due to Canadian music writer Carl Wilson’s influential volume about Céline and kitsch called Let’s Talk About Love.

For me, while I didn’t find Mindelle’s version of Dion as exact as some of the icon’s (myriad) impersonators, the actress did capture what is spiritually central to the singer: a sense of spontaneity that springs from a love of life.

Dion is known for breaking into songs by unexpected artists at unexpected moments (Google her name and Who Let the Dogs Out if you don’t know what I mean). Likewise, Titanique has been structured, almost like a holiday pantomime, to give Mindelle many opportunities to improvise – and these are the moments where she shines brightest. (The night I attended, she had me in stitches as her Dion, for some unclear reason, started making up a new song for the Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods.)

By the time I found myself joining in a heartfelt singalong of My Heart Will Go On at the curtain call, the appeal of the show – and its off-kilter but true tribute to Céline Dion – was entirely clear.