Sunday, June 23, 2024

REVIEW: Titanic

Review of the Saturday, June 22, 2024 matinee performance at New York City Center in New York City. A presentation of the Encores! series. Starring Ashley Blanchet, Adam Chanler-Berat, Chuck Cooper, Eddie Cooper, Lilli Cooper, Andrew Durand, Drew Gehling, Alex Joseph Grayson, Ramin Karimloo, Emilie Kouatchou, Judy Kuhn, Jose Llana, Bonnie Milligan, Ari Notartomaso, Nathan Salstone, A.J. Shively, Brandon Uranowitz, Samantha Williams and Chip Zien. Book by Peter Stone. Music and lyrics by Maury Yeston. Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. Scenic design by Paul Tate dePoo III. Costume design by Marion Talán de la Rosa. Lighting design by David Weiner. Sound design by Megumi Katayama. Conductor/music direction by Rob Berman. Choreography by Danny Mefford. Directed by Anne Kauffman. 2 hours 30 minutes, with one intermission. This production closed with the Sunday, June 23, 2024 evening performance.

"How did they build Titanic?" asks an awestruck Barrett, ship's stoker about to embark on the maiden voyage of the storied liner. One need only to have seen the stunning Encores! revival of the musical classic to understand how Peter Stone (book), Maury Yeston (music and lyrics) and Jonathan Tunick (orchestrations) built Titanic. This bare bones revival shows this piece off in all of its dramatic glory, unfettered by special effects and grand design.

That's not to say the design team was less than stellar. No, it is just the opposite. Determined to retain the early traditions of the Encores! series while maintaining the idea that the Ship of Dreams was just the vessel by which to tell a deeply human story, the team suggests the grandeur and keeps the focus where it should be: on the doomed passengers and crew of the largest floating object in the world. Paul Tate dePoo III's bi-level set allows for multiple scenes at once, and keeps the real star of the show - the music - in full view at all times. (The Encores Orchestra, larger than that of the original production, is marvelous under the baton of Rob Berman.) The costumes, designed by 
Marion Talán de la Rosa, suggest crew rank and passenger class with ease and elegance, just as David Weiner's simple lighting, featuring bars of light, conveys location, time and emotion. However, the designer that really stands out for me is Megumi Katayama, who allows us to hear every instrument, note and voice with a clarity one might expect from high end ear buds- no small feat given the cavernous space of the venue.

It is the ingenuity and care taken by director Anne Kauffman that takes this far beyond a concert staging, though. Where the company uses their bound scripts as props that suggest angelic choirs on occasion, and music stands represent stations on the ship's bridge, this style of presentation is fully integrated into the piece, making it feel natural. A main theme of the musical - and in real life - is that of social standing, and Kauffman subtly and powerfully stages the show to reflect that. With ship's officers arriving and departing the scenes in military-like formations, the crew generally and effectively relegated to the background until called upon, one understands immediately the rank and power structure aboard ship. The first class passengers are given the full stage and always a seat if needed, while the second class is given a sort of no-man's land of most of the stage, but always from the outside looking in, and the third class is given the least amount of stage, most often in tightly boxed configurations of set pieces, forcing them to find space to sit where they can, including the floor. Interesting how those set pieces, mostly long blue boxes, stand in as crew work benches, first class dining, and, poignantly, a lifeboat. In the final scenes, as all of the classes sit on the deck together awaiting their fate, death being the great equalizer, those boxes remain, unused and ominously in full view, coffin-like. The complete staging is a wonder befitting such a grand work and tribute to all of the survivors and souls lost in one of the world's greatest tragedies.

What an absolute privilege to be in the same room with this illustrious cast, a who's who of talent with careers spanning forty some years. To think that the ensemble alone counts among its ranks actors who have played Christines, Cosettes, Phantoms and any number of prominent roles in recent years on New York and West End stages tells you the level of quality here. Ensemble standouts include Ali Ewoldt (Phantom of the Opera), Evan Harrington (Avenue Q), Leah Horowitz (Follies, Les Miserables), Michael Maliakel (Aladdin, Kennedy Center's Sunset Boulevard) and Matthew Scott (An American in Paris).


The principal cast is impeccable. Andrew Durand (Jim Farrell, 3rd class), Lilli Cooper, Samantha Williams and Ashley Blanchet ("The Three Kates", 3rd class) bring an earthy optimism to the performance, particularly the lovely ode to the American Dream, "Lady's Maid." Blanchet also scores as the enigmatic Charlotte Cardoza, a woman who aims to get everything a man can get. A.J. Shively and 
Emilie Kouatchou (the Clarkes, 2nd class) are sweetly romantic and well-sung as the ill-fated engaged couple.

Broadway royalty Chip Zien and Judy Kuhn take on the emotional core of the piece in the roles of Isador and Ida Straus, 1st class, whose 11 o'clock duet "Still" nearly stopped the show. Soon to be Broadway royalty Drew Gehling and Bonnie Milligan as Edgar and Alice Beane, 2nd class, offer up many of the show's comic moments as she attempts to social climb, while he, completely smitten, tries to keep her in her place. Their separation in the final moments is a heartbreaking thing, while the Straus' resolve to remain together is equally sorrowful. Both couples had chemistry that reached the furthest rows of the theater.


Among the crew, powerful performances abound. As cabin boy and Fleet, lookout, Ari Notartomaso and Nathan Salstone, respectively, represent the bright future of live theater. Adam Chanler-Barat is quite touching as Murdoch, 1st officer, tortured by his own lack of confidence and paralyzed by the knowledge that his actions might have caused the sinking. Alex Joseph Grayson is duty personified as radioman Bride, and the incomparable Ramin Karimloo is no less than brilliant as stoker Barrett. Their duet, "The Proposal/The Night Was Alive with a Thousand Voices" was thrilling, as was Karimloo's solo, "Barrett's Song (The Screws Were Turning)." And watching the shrewd manipulation of the 1st class passengers by Steward 1st Class Etches (the delightful Eddie Cooper) was comedic and satisfying. 

Finally, as the trio in charge, Chuck Cooper (Captain E.J. Smith), Jose Llana (ship architect, Thomas Andrews), and Brandon Uranowitz (J. Bruce Ismay, Director of the White Star Line) create such a building tension that when things come to a head, it is an explosive reminder that their beliefs and machinations created the perfect storm of tragic inevitability. It is never more clear than when the three clash in "The Blame," and all sides must own a piece of the responsibility. Cooper's quiet resolve and acceptance of the captain's fate, Llana's manic desperation at Andrews' futile attempts to fix things even as the ship sinks, and Uranowitz's vivid portrayal of Ismay's maddening greed, lust for glory and ultimate cowardice, are a brutal encapsulation of all those things that have brought men down for centuries. Separately, each is at the top of their game; together, they are everything that makes modern musical theater a still potent art form.

And so it seems Encores! has returned to its roots of 30 years ago: infrequently produced classics with simple staging that emphasizes the music, book and acting. Its sheer size and the physical requirements practically demanded by audiences, makes Titanic the ideal production for this series, as we may never see something like this fully staged again.

📸: J. Marcus

Friday, June 21, 2024

The Friday 5: 5 Tony Awards Highs...and Lows

5 Things the Tony Awards Got Right...and Wrong

High #1: The Lifetime Achievement Awards Speeches
Both George C. Wolfe and Jack O'Brien gave thoughtful, insightful and humorous speeches. Humble and grateful, these gentlemen showed us exactly why they deserved this honor...and why they aren't finished yet.

Low #1: The Opening Number
You know I worship at the altar of Tom Kitt, and Amanda Green is right up there in my esteem, too. But this slog of an opening was bland and had the energy of a deflating balloon. I'm no dancer, but considering what Ariana DeBose did with last year's opener, I can't see why she was that out of breath.

High  #2: Kara Young winning Featured Actress in a Play
When we saw Purlie Victorious this past winter, I remember saying to Mike as we exited the Music Box that Kara Young was going to win the Tony for her mesmerizing performance. It truly was one for the ages. I know I'll never forget it.

Low 2: The sound & camera work
It was embarrassing, really. From the opening number, right through The Outsiders' rumble, each musical number felt like I was listening through cotton at best, from underwater at worst. And the camera work was just as bad. When the presenters were naming their respective nominees, the camera was so close to their faces, they looked like they were in carnival fish bowls. And when will they learn that cutting to close ups in most production numbers ruins the effect. Long shots and stand still! (I'm still nauseated from the Cabaret shenanigans.)

High #3: Danya Taymor's shocking victory
I (and pretty much everyone I know) was so sure Maria Friedman was going to win, I almost got up to refill my drink instead of watching. I'm glad I didn't! And I'm happy for Danya Taymor, and she did some amazing work bringing The Outsiders from page to stage. It was 100% theatrical in all the best ways. Gritty and real. And gold.

Low #3: Hell's Kitchen & Cabaret
I can't remember the last time a Tonys performance made me not want to see a show, but it happened twice this year. Cabaret is one of my all-rime favorite musicals, but what I saw on Sunday was overblown, self-indulgent and creepy for the sake of being creepy. Eddie Redmayne was ridiculous. Period. And then there's Hell's Kitchen, which was granted nearly twice as much time as every other show. It looked sloppy, was definitely off-key throughout, and didn't showcase its strongest asset, Maleah Joi Moon. I feel sorry for ticket buyers who think Alicia Keys and Jay-Z are actually in the show. 

High #4: The Chita Rivera tribute number
It was as moving and exciting as the great lady they were paying tribute to. I loved how each of her signature numbers from her greatest triumphs were instantly recognizable, and so beautifully rendered by the ensemble. 

Low #4: No mention of the earlier award winners
As if it wasn't already shameful that so many artists are relegated to the no-man's land of the "warm-up" show, but then not to mention any of them during the main telecast? What an absolute insult.

High #5: The "In Memoriam" segment
Tastefully presented with large, flattering pictures and names, it was lovely. And hearing "What I Did For Love" sung with such poignancy by Nicole Scherzinger was the icing on the cake. She's sensational.

Low #5: The shout-outs
When pre-show host Utkarsh Ambudkar did it the first couple of times, it was funny and felt clever. But giving shout-outs is a bit with diminishing returns, and ended up sounding like what it was: name-dropping to let everyone know he has Broadway connections, no matter how distant they may be - Freestyle Love Supreme counts, but not as much as, say, being in Hamilton. And besides that, were it me, I'd have pointed out that Anthony Ramos wasn't wearing a shirt, and then have asked, "why are you wearing a jacket?"

Bonus Friday 5: 5 Favorite Shows of the 2024 Broadway Season
(In alphabetical order!)
1. Appropriate
2. Illinoise
3. The Notebook
4. The Outsiders
5. Water For Elephants
On any given day, this list might also include Back to the Future most fun), Days of Wine and Roses (most brave), Lempicka (most thought-provoking), Purlie Victorious (most uplifting) or Stereophonic (most on my mind since seeing it). So it looks like I really have 10 five favorite shows!

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Play It Again: West Side Story's "Something's Coming"

Play It Again:
West Side Story's "Somewhere"

For this new series, Jeff has invited me to choose some classic Broadway show tunes and compare versions of these songs from several different cast recordings. Wherever possible, I’ll link to the songs on YouTube, where I listen to most of them myself.

This week’s entry considers five recordings of the classic “Something’s Coming” from Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s West Side Story. The first of several rather introspective songs for Tony, it foreshadows the world-changing events, good and bad, that will befall him in the next couple of days. A true collaborative effort, Sondheim’s lyrics borrow heavily from book writer Arthur Laurents’ descriptive sketches for the scene, while Bernstein’s setting of the trippy 3/4 opening section was in turn suggested to him by Sondheim.

These five versions are mostly identical in terms of music and lyrics, with only the last few measures attesting to some subtle tinkering over the course of 64 years. They do, however, differ markedly in orchestration and in each vocalist’s approach to the song. I ended up awarding a tie for my top choice here, as the original boasts an almost miraculous vocal delivery, while the first film soundtrack features a merely great performance backed by top-notch sound and orchestration. With one surprising exception, all of them are sublime listening experiences.

My overall favorite version is marked with two stars (**); one star (*) is used to indicate that a particular version stands out in terms of singing, orchestra, sound, or other miscellaneous qualities. 

- YouTube

Tony: Larry Kert

*SINGING: I’m not one for thinking that the original is always the best, but Kert’s otherworldly vocals set an extremely high bar for this song. His tightly controlled delivery, with joyful outbursts barely restrained by the character’s cerebral tendencies, puts the listener right into Tony’s head space. It’s certainly a performance for the ages.

ORCHESTRA: The original orchestration is surprisingly spare compared to later entries, with its simple percussive brass, woodwind touches, and dynamic string section. 

SOUND: One of producer Goddard Lieberson’s masterly 1950s recordings, the sound is extremely clear and atmospheric. The balance is tilted a bit towards the vocalist for my taste, but most orchestral details are still distinct.

MISCELLANEOUS: This original version has a rather mysterious ending, with a single repetition of “maybe tonight” ending on a level note with no real musical conclusion to the song. 


Tony: Jimmy Bryant

SINGING: Bryant’s approach is similar to Kert’s, and the results are almost as satisfying. He takes the melody a step lower than his predecessor (and most of his successors), and he transitions a little less smoothly between calm and unbridled joy, but he still manages to deliver masterful vocals with a natural simplicity befitting the character.

*ORCHESTRA: The orchestration builds organically on the original, adding a few extra layers of detail and a noticeably fuller string section that playfully jostles with Bryant’s vocals. Uniquely, this version of the song ends with a lovely extended woodwind flourish that really earns this one the star. 

*SOUND: This is an extremely clear recording, with the brass prominent but not obtrusive, and a good balance in general between singer and orchestra.

*MISCELLANEOUS: This one features the best ending, with the repetition of the last line culminating in one final ascending “tonight,” chillingly anticipating Tony’s duet with Maria. The above-mentioned woodwind melody that brings the track to a close is subtle but satisfyingly conclusive. 

- YouTube

Tony: José Carreras

SINGING: Carreras can obviously sing the notes perfectly, but he’s not a great actor, and this interpretation lacks the range and nuance of the others. There’s a bit of an issue with diction, too, especially in some of the more quickly delivered lyrics. Opera singers have been hugely successful in certain musical theater roles, but this is just not a good match of performer and character.

ORCHESTRA: This recording introduces a notably busier orchestration, which is basically retained in subsequent versions. In particular, the brass section is much more aggressive, inserting little outbursts that reflect the Jets’ characteristic dissonant themes. It’s not that I find this inappropriate or intrusive, but I prefer the more limited elaboration of the earlier film soundtrack.

SOUND: Generally fine, but slightly muddy in some of the louder parts, with singing and orchestra blending together.

MISCELLANEOUS: The ending is similar to the original recording. Given that Bernstein conceived of and conducted this version, it’s a surprising misfire for me overall. 

- YouTube

Tony: Matt Cavenaugh

SINGING: Cavenaugh’s approach is decidedly different from the others, rather actorly and tinged with more modern-sounding pop touches. It’s a legitimate choice that I am certain worked well on stage, but his voice occasionally sounds a bit too nasal and the vibrato too aggressive for my taste.

ORCHESTRA: The orchestration is very similar to the studio version just discussed.

SOUND: Generally excellent with good balance, perhaps a bit less detailed than a couple of the other versions.

MISCELLANEOUS: The ending features the repetition of “maybe tonight” with the ascending final note, this time with a dramatic brassy button to bring the song to a close.

- YouTube

Tony: Ansel Elgort

SINGING: Elgort’s approach marks a return to the sensibility of the earlier stage and film versions; his voice has a simple retro feel to it that fits the character like a glove. He sings the song in a much lower key than the others, and of course he can’t match a Larry Kert in terms of vocal purity, but he makes up for it with an abundance of charisma and personality. 

ORCHESTRA: The orchestration is similar to the other latter-day versions, with very active brass and percussion, but sounds slightly more restrained here, perhaps due to the huge size of the ambient orchestra.

*SOUND: Like the earlier movie soundtrack, the sound of this one is pretty much perfect. Great attention was obviously paid to making every word and every note completely distinct.

MISCELLANEOUS: The ending combines the now-standard high note on the final “tonight” with the inconclusive fade-out of the original recording.


Monday, June 17, 2024

Star-To-Be: The Outsiders' Brent Comer

If you are at all familiar with the film version of The Outsiders, you know that as great as he was, Patrick Swayze had a pretty small role as Darryl Curtis, Ponyboy's oldest brother. So, when I saw the musical version on Broadway a few weeks ago, I didn't expect I would see much of whoever would take on part. Boy, was I wrong! Not only did Adam Rapp and Justin Levine's book expand the role, but the young actor playing the character was wonderful in it. Nuanced and heartfelt, Broadway newcomer Brent Comer became one of the emotional centers of 2024's Best Musical and catapulted himself to the top of my list of new talent to follow. 

The Outsiders' Brent Comer

A regular in the local theater scene of Western Maryland, Comer played such roles as The Baker in Into the Woods, Prince Eric in The Little Mermaid, and Melchior in Spring Awakening. While earning his degree in musical theater from James Madison University in Virginia, he had featured roles in the family musical Schoolhouse Rock Live! and as the Wolf/Cinderella's Prince in Into the Woods. His professional debut came when he was cast in the 2019 National Tour of Les Miserables, which got cut short due to the pandemic. Then, he got an even better break when he was cast as Paul in the pre-Broadway production of The Outsiders at La Jolla Playhouse. Before transferring to the Jacobs Theatre, he was promoted to the role of Darryl when its originator, Ryan Vasquez, went on to The Notebook. The rest is history - and I suspect Mr. Comer will have a long career on stage.

The Little Mermaid

Into the Woods/Spring Awakening

Rehearsing Schoolhouse Rock Live!

Into the Woods (left)

Promo Shots

Production Photos

Opening Night with Angelina Jolie
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