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Titanic

A 1997 Best Musical Tony Award winner returns in a brilliant, streamlined production.

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Jose Llana, Adam Chanler-Berat, Chuck Cooper, Michael Maliakel and Brandon Uranonwitz in a scene from Encores!’ production of “Titanic” at the New York City Center (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

In 1997 the Maury Yeston/Peter Stone musical Titanic won the Tony Award as the Best Musical.  The current New York City Center Encores! staging of this show trims the work to its basic bones, the original’s complex set reduced to very simple scenic effects using stark lighting and moveable trunks arranged for different effects—Paul Tate dePoo III (scenic designer) and David Weiner (lighting designer).

The Prologue sets up the inflated expectations of the RMS Titanic with “In Every Age” sung by Thomas Andrews, the ship’s designer (the terrific Jose Llana in a boldly solid performance).

Chip Zien and Judy Kuhn in a scene from Encores!’ production of “Titanic” at the New York City Center (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

The huge cast is divided between the Officers and Crew, First-Class Passengers, Second-Class Passengers and Third-Class Passengers.  Even with some doubling, over thirty actors tell how hubris (personified by J. Bruce Ismay, the director of the White Star Line, played as obsessed and heedless by Brandon Uranowitz) doomed this “unsinkable” ship.

Captain E.J. Smith (a solid Chuck Cooper) is forced to watch a bright career end in infamy as the doom-plagued story unfolds. He wants to pass his position to First Officer Murdoch (Adam Chanler-Berat, in a moving portrait of a life lost too soon), as we all know, fate had other plans.

Chip Zien and Judy Kuhn in a scene from Encores!’ production of “Titanic” at the New York City Center (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

His crew includes Frederick Barrett, a stoker (Ramin Karimloo, making this character stand out) who knows firsthand the inner workings of the Titanic—“How Did They Build the Titanic.”  Harold Bride, the radioman (Alex Joseph Grayson, strong in a pivotal role) and Frederick Fleet the all-important Lookout who is the first to see the fatal iceberg is played with fervor by Nathan Salstone.

The parade of fascinating characters in Peter Stone’s libretto—some based on real people—provides the material for Yeston’s songs, all of which, happy (“Doing the Latest Rag”) or sad (“We’ll Meet Tomorrow”), are over-shadowed by the inescapable calamity that the audience knows will befall them.  This is Yeston’s most classical score.

Lilli Cooper, Samantha Williams and Ashley Blanchet in a scene from Encores!’ production of “Titanic” at the New York City Center (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Of course, it is well known that the First-Class passengers included Isidor and Ida Straus, owners of Macy’s (Chip Zien and Judy Kuhn, tearing the hearts out of the audience in their moving final duet, “Still,” summarizing their amazing marriage as the ship goes down.  Other First Class guests include John J. and Madeleine Astor (Evan Harrington and Leslie Donna Flesner), Benjamin Guggenheim (Timothy McDevitt) and the mysterious, eccentric Charlotte Cardoza (Ashley Blanchet) who bullies her way into card games with the cigar smoking upper crust men.

Second-Class has its colorful characters, too.  The Beanes, Alice and Edgar (Bonnie Milligan and Drew Gehling), hardware store owners from middle America make an impression, particularly Milligan whose Alice wants nothing but to hobnob with the First-Class gilded age members.  Milligan almost steals the show with her “The 1st Class Roster” and “Doing the Latest Rag” where she actually gets her wish.  (The “Rag” is choreographed by Danny Mefford, the only point in the show that seemed to require his wit.)

Bonnie Milligan and Drew Gehling in a scene from Encores!’ production of “Titanic” at the New York City Center (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

The doomed Third-Class features Jim Farrell (the very busy and talented Andrew Durand fresh from Shucked and Dead Outlaw) and three Irish Kates movingly portrayed by Samantha Williams, Lilli Cooper and the versatile Blanchet).  Their struggle to get out of steerage is particularly poignant.

The tapestry Stone weaves with his multitude of characters—too many to mention here—is always fascinating in its subtle details.  Each person stands on his or her own helped by superb performances by the entire cast under the skilled direction of Anne Kauffman (Mary Jane and The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window).  Under her care they all sing magnificently helped by guest music director Rob Berman’s sensitive handling of the Yeston score, directing the large Encores! Orchestra to bring out all the facets of the almost operatic music.

Andrew Durand and Samantha Williams in a scene from Encores!’ production of “Titanic” at the New York City Center (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Márion Talán de la Rosa’s costumes (almost entirely in black and white), including uniforms, formal attire and long dresses, support the actors’ characterizations.

Is this Encores! production a viable candidate for moving to Broadway the way Parade, Chicago and Wonderful Town did?  Certainly Titanic is a virtuoso example of City Center’s efforts, but it does need a large cast and the denouement—underlined by Yeston’s heavy score—is unavoidably dark.

 Titanic (through June 23, 2024)

New York City Center Encores!

New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-581-1212 or visit http://www.NYCityCenter.org

Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission

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About Joel Benjamin (564 Articles)
JOEL BENJAMIN was a child performer on Broadway and danced with leading modern dance and ballet companies. Joel has been attending theater, ballet and opera performances ever since childhood, becoming quite opinionated over the years. He was the founder and artistic director of the American Chamber Ballet and subsequently was massage therapist to the stars before becoming a reviewer and memoirist. He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.

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