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Theatre Review by Howard Miller - June 13, 2024

The Cast
Photo by Joan Marcus
Titanic, the 1997 musical by Peter Stone (story and book) and Maury Yeston (music and lyrics), is about as massive a theatrical endeavor as you are likely to encounter. The cast alone numbers nearly three dozen, and even then some of these performers are called upon to portray more than one character. The orchestra is practically as large. Few expect to see another Broadway mounting like the one that garnered five Tony Awards, including one for Best Musical and another for the great orchestrator Jonathan Tunick. It's a show that is as big as its namesake, and it would take mighty deep pockets to get this behemoth up and running again. So who could have imagined it would find a perfect home as an entry as an Encores! production at New York City Center, where is currently docked for a short stay until June 23.

If you've seen it before, grab a ticket while you can. If you've never seen it, grab a ticket while you can. Even without the impossible-to-replicate set design, and with cast members often holding and referring to bound copies of the script (i.e. the way an Encores! production used to be), it is that good.

The story of the Royal Mail Steamer Titanic is etched into the consciousness of pretty much everyone in the universe. The actual ship may have sunk long ago, but the account of that calamity lives on, reexamined through books, movies, several traveling exhibitions, and an Off-Broadway spoof that is still playing at the Daryl Roth Theatre.

The latter, known as Titanique, parodies James Cameron's blockbuster film, which, coincidentally, came out the same year as the musical. You surely know it, the one about Jack and Rose and a certain doomed sea voyage. Their love story, as memorable and romantic as it is, has nothing to do with Titanic the musical, whose more straightforward telling divides the events into two acts.

Act I is focused on the grandeur of the ship, members of the crew, its passenger list representative of First Class, Second Class, and Third Class, and its designated villain, J. Bruce Ismay (Brandon Uranowitz), the chairman and managing director of the White Star Line that operated Titanic. Ismay is seen all through the first act haranguing Captain E. J. Smith (Chuck Cooper) to increase the ship's speed and take the sort of risks that would lead to the deadly encounter with the iceberg. Act II, then, deals with the aftermath of the collision up until the sinking and what would be the loss of more than 1,500 lives.

But that's just the facts of it. The glory of Titanic is its grand score, and Encores! has spared no effort to get this right. The orchestra, under the sure baton of guest director Rob Berman, has never sounded better. In true Encores! fashion, the musicians are visible throughout the evening; here they occupy the entire stretch of what would be the upper deck of Titanic, while the cast members generally are spread out below and across the stage floor. There is little room for anything else, but there really is no need for anything but a few unfussy costumes, some props, and great lighting and (thankfully) great sound design by Megumi Katayama, who clearly understands the acoustics of City Center.

The score itself is dramatic and lush, as befits the story that is being told. There are echoes of Beethoven, Gilbert and Sullivan, patriotic tunes, hymns, Viennese waltzes, a ragtime number, even, if my ears don't deceive, a nod to Sondheim. There are also a couple of beautiful love songs, including a genuine tearjerker performed by Isidor and Ida Straus (Chip Zien and Judy Kuhn), whose story as it relates to the Titanic is often told, of the long-married couple who refused to be separated even as the ship was sinking.

By any measure, this production of Titanic is sheer theatrical magic, with a starry cast that, in addition to those mentioned above, includes Ramin Karimloo, Bonnie Milligan, A. J. Shively, Andrew Durand, Lilli Cooper, and many more terrific actors and singers. The entire affair has been directed with surefire aplomb by Anne Kauffman. Miss this and you've missed something special indeed.

Through June 23, 2024
City Center Encores!
New York City Center, 131 W 55th St. (between Sixth and Seventh Avenues), New York, NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: