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

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