New York City Center Encores! 2024 Review: Titanic

By Matt Costello


 So, quite a few thoughts before reviewing this moving revival of the Peter Stone (story and book) and Maury Yeston (music and lyrics) “Titanic.”

One is, well…having seen the piece during its original Tony award-winning run, I was more than thrilled to see it being revived. It is, and was, a wonder capturing the humanity and the disaster of that fatal sailing.

And as someone whose passion is opera, I was again struck by the work, nearly sung-throughout, and it is scale, the power of the score, and the sheer emotion all for lack of a more accurate word, “operatic.”

Where is the line between the two, I wondered, once again? Because if there is such a line, “Titanic” squarely and securely straddles it.

And like many in the audience perhaps, for much of my life the tragic story of that fateful night of April 15th was something always haunting even as the Academy Award-winning film made the legend grow even larger..

And the 1997 musical? Well, the pedigree of the show can tell you much about it. Stone had of course written the book for “1776,” another  musical that bent the rules of the genre, to create what I would argue is a near hybrid art form. Music theater? Music drama? To reference the bard, what’s in a name? And Yeston’s “Nine” , with his music and lyrics, was a multiple-Tony winner and another ground-breaking work.

Production Details

The show begins by detailing the ship itself – a floating city – through the eyes of its builder, the captain and diverse crew, all with their different key roles in this first and only voyage.

The focus ultimately moves to those who were sailing into the unknown, the passengers on a great ship that would never reach New York’s destination.

The show succeeds beyond hope on all those fronts, tackling this unlikely, even unwieldy tale for a “musical,” with the surest of hands, and soaring and compelling music to match the legend.

There are so many things to say about this “Encores!” revival of the Tony-award winning musical. Central is the remarkable work of director Anne Kauffman whose staging was a clear reminder of the work of avant-garde stage director Peter Brook. Brook, in his classic book, “The Empty Space,” made absolutely critical points about the very nature of live theatre, two of which are highly relevant here.

One is that, said as simply a possible, less can be more. That live theater does not necessarily need or require the grandiose sets and production in an attempt to overwhelm audiences with grandeur and their “reality.”

Theater’s magic, he posited, really lies elsewhere. And part of that is because of another one of his tenets for any production, any director, namely that the audience is not simply attending, not simply watching.

They are participating.

Which means that, at its best, the audience engages with the theater piece with their own imaginations. In short, co-creating the reality of the tale being brought to life with the cast, the director, even the writer and composer.

“Titanic,” as directed by Kauffman, in what is modestly called a semi-staged production does just that.

And yet, we experience it all. From the holds below where the coal is constantly shoveled, fatally propelling the ship faster and faster. To the gala ballrooms where elegant dinners and dancing into the night occurs.

Even onto frigid decks and the crow’s nest where the mammoth berg is first spotted.

To finally: the tragic moment where women and children leave behind husbands and fathers for the insufficient lifeboats, while so many left behind would perish.

All excitingly, amazing on stage as we, yes, do watch. But also we participate with our hearts and imagination.

Mind you, I saw and loved the original justly award-winning production. With the ship, its chambers, grand rooms and even the fateful tilt of the great ship sinking, all brilliantly and quite realistically recreated.

But this revival, was pure theater.

Musical Highlights

And then, the music. Again, so much to comment on. But first, the orchestra was powerfully conducted by Rob Berman, above the stage area. Not just accompanying the singers, but commenting on the events in a near operatic way. Leitmotifs abound, the orchestra is almost a character in its own right, as we feel the undercurrents of the stirring music and themes swirling as much as the North Atlantic itself must have that frigid, fateful night.

And then the cast, here is where things do get very challenging for a reviewer.

“The Encores!” series attracts major talent for what is a very short-term commitment. And that talent is always the best Broadway has to offer.

But the cast here, with the captain, officers, and crew, the first, second, and third class passengers – is too large. And beside the sheer number of players, itself remarkable, there are the absolutely tremendous voices that have been gathered for the two-week limited run.

There is a reason that, at the performance’s end, the entire cast stands as one in line for a unified bow. The audience responded as well, springing to its feet immediately; there was simply no other reaction to the performance.

An ensemble piece of the highest order, to be sure. That said…I have found among so many great performers and performances, and specific scenes, that have lingered in my mind.

For example, the intimately constructed moment where the stoker (sung with force and beatify by Ramin Karimloo), tries to inveigh the Marconi wireless operator to send a telegram to his love waiting back in England. While the stoker sings the simple message, “marry me,” the operator (sensitively sung by Alex Joseph Grayson) marvels at this gift of the modern age with its perfectly synced “dit…dot…dit…”

And we are touched by the thought: the telegram and offer of marriage will arrive. But perhaps…not the stoker or the wireless operator. (Though fate will take a hand in that question…)

Then there’s dizzying and masterful review of the various classes, making the fated passengers of every stripe come alive, culminating in the soaring unforgettable “Godspeed Titanic.”

And then, so strong, the trio of White Star Line’s owner, Ismay (Brandon Uranowitz), Andrews the ship’s designer (Jose Llana), and Captain Smith (Chuck Cooper), all three pointing fingers in a wonderfully fierce song about blame as the “ship of dreams” faces its last hour and half afloat.

Llana’s near-finale solo, “Mr Andrew’s Vision” movingly hammers home the designer’s cruel realization that this terrible loss…the tragic sinking…did not need to happen.

Other highlights among so many: the three Kates (Samantha Williams, Ashley Blanchet, Lilli Cooper) all with the same name, all ready for America’s streets paved with gold in as they beautifully sing “Lady’s Maid.” They are powerfully joined by a host of other third Class Passengers, all of them with their future dreams.

And there is a one final moment of sweet intimacy as Isidor and Ida Strauss (perfectly essayed by Chip Zien and Judy Kuhn) share a priceless bottle of champagne, deciding not to separate and sing the haunting “Still.”

And lest you think the show about a tragedy is devoid of humor, far from it. Especially when we get to enjoy Tony-wonder Bonnie Mulligan’s eager and funny class-conscious second class passenger who would, at the end, is separated from her husband, their dreams dashed.

So yes, those and so many more moments stay with one. “Titanic” is simply an abundance of such things. And the Encores Orchestra, led by guest conductor Rob Berman, matches every stirring voice, ever powerful chorus, every intricate ensemble with a clarity and power that alone is reason enough see the show.

A shame really that, as is the way with the successful “Encores!” series, that the run is limited. The wonderful and starry cast will undoubtedly move onto other shows and longer runs.

But if somehow, through some bit of timing and magic, you do get a chance to ever experience this very special work, don’t hesitate to see it in person. And be ready to “participate” in musical theater at its very best.


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