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Review: Titanic Gets a First-Class Concert Revival With a 30-Piece Orchestra at Encores!

Maury Yeston and Peter Stone’s Tony-winning musical is presented in all its glory at New York City Center.

Titanic Story & Book by Peter Stone
Music & Lyrics by Maury Yeston
Original Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick Scenic Designer Paul Tate dePoo III
Costume Designer Márion Talán de la Rosa
Lighting Designer David Weiner
Sound Designer Megumi Katayama
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Brandon Uranowitz as J. Bruce Ismay, Jose Llana as Thomas Andrews, Alex Joseph Grayson as Harold Bride, and Chuck Cooper as Captain Smith in the New York City Center production of Titanic
(© Joan Marcus)

It’s been a long time since Encores! truly felt like Encores! — a music-forward concert presentation of a show nobody’s seen for a long time, with the actors using their scripts to get them through the scenes they didn’t have time to memorize during the brief rehearsal process. Over the past decade, the libretti have disappeared, the production values have increased, and, especially recently, it felt like the central goal for the annual New York City Center program was transformed into becoming just a springboard for Broadway transfers.

Anne Kauffman’s magnificent new presentation of Maury Yeston and Peter Stone’s Tony-winning 1997 musical Titanic is both a repudiation of what Encores! has become and a reminder of what made the series so vital to begin with. Turns out, a modestly staged concert, emphasizing crystalline storytelling through song, can have just as much of an impact, if not a greater one, than something Broadway-sized. Who knew? he asked acerbically.

Of course, as Sondheim said, content dictates form, and there would be no way to create a full production of Titanic in just 10 days of rehearsal. Not with what Yeston’s choral score demands of its 32 singers, and what Jonathan Tunick’s booming orchestrations require of its 30-member orchestra, and the climactic event of Stone’s book, where the ship sinks. Even the original staging couldn’t get the boat to work eight times a week, so it’s especially wise of Kauffman to have recognized the limitations of this process and get ahead of them.

Titanic Story & Book by Peter StoneMusic & Lyrics by Maury Yeston
Original Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick Scenic Designer Paul Tate dePoo III
Costume Designer Márion Talán de la Rosa
Lighting Designer David Weiner
Sound Designer Megumi Katayama
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Chip Zien and Judy Kuhn as Isador and Ida Strauss in Titanic at New York City Center
(© Joan Marcus)

A kaleidoscopic portrait of the Titanic’s doomed passengers and crew members, the show has no central Jack or Rose (ironically, James Cameron’s now-iconic and entirely unrelated film was also released in 1997), but a variety of figures who take the spotlight.

On the bridge are Thomas Andrews (Jose Llana), the architect who views his vessel as a “floating metropolis” on par with the Sistine Chapel; hubristic owner J. Bruce Ismay (Brandon Uranowitz) whose desire is to make headlines with this voyage; and stoic Captain E.J. Smith (Chuck Cooper), on his final voyage after 43 years at sea.

The first-class passengers are a who’s who of Guggenheims and Thayers, and Isadore and Ida Strauss (Chip Zien and Judy Kuhn), who famously go down together. There’s the social-climbing second class voyager Alice Beane (Bonnie Milligan) and her much demurer husband Edgar (Drew Gehling), as well a trio of Irish Kates (Samantha Williams, Lilli Cooper, and Ashley Blanchet) among the other immigrants dreaming of a better life in America from steerage. The telegraph operator (Alex Joseph Grayson), boiler stoker (Ramin Karimloo), and a host of others also get time to share their perspectives.

Spectacle was the central focus of the original — when Stewart Laing’s expressionistic set worked, it basically tilted on an axis to make it look like the ship was actually sinking — and everything else took a backseat. Here, Kauffman guides her gallery of contemporary musical-theater greats into shockingly lived-in performances that give new heft to Stone’s script, which is both funnier and more emotionally involving than I remembered. It’s hard for us not to see the outcome in richly textured work like Chuck Cooper’s, and the fact that he doesn’t know where Uranowitz’s gleefully bitchy demands about increasing speed will lead makes both of their turns all the sadder.

But everyone is perfectly cast. Milligan steps into the shoes of her Kimberly Akimbo auntie Victoria Clark with ferocious comedic timing. Williams’s Kate leads with her heart and soul as she dreams of life as a lady’s maid in America. Grayson and Karimloo do justice to “The Night Was Alive,” one of the best musical-theater ballads of the 1990s. And Zien and Kuhn damn near stop the show late in the sinking with their song of eternal love, “Still.” Less-showy work from Blanchet (Charlotte Cardoza), Eddie Cooper (steward Etches), Adam Chanler-Berat (first-officer Murdoch), and particularly Daniel Beeman (as third-officer Pitman) and Ari Notartomaso (as an ever-present bellboy) is extremely well-calibrated.

The voices come together, alongside the orchestra under the indispensable baton of former Encores! musical director Rob Berman, in a way that knocks your socks off (Megumi Katayama’s sound design is especially crisp). Yeston’s beautiful score and Tunick’s thunderous orchestrations are presented in all their glory, hitting us with a wall of sound that feels once-in-a-lifetime. And in a way, it is. With 62 people performing and the current economics being what they are, Titanic probably won’t get a first-class presentation like this ever again. It’s essential viewing — and what Encores! does best.

Titanic Story & Book by Peter Stone
Music & Lyrics by Maury Yeston
Original Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick Scenic Designer Paul Tate dePoo III
Costume Designer Márion Talán de la Rosa
Lighting Designer David Weiner
Sound Designer Megumi Katayama
Pr
Lilli Cooper, Samantha Williams, and Ashley Blanchet as the Kates in Titanic
(© Joan Marcus)

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Closed: June 23, 2024