June 24, 2024: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler

As someone who saw all fifteen Tony-eligible Broadway musicals this season, I had two thoughts upon exiting the concert version of Titanic early last week at City Centers Encores!: 1) Not a single show came anywhere close to the magisterial score Maury Yeston wrote twenty-seven years ago, and 2) I have to buy a ticket and see it again when it closes Sunday night after fifteen performances. Well, I've done just that and here’s my report.

To start at the beginning, Titanic is a musical that had me at “hello” back in 1997; its opening number sending shivers down my spine. Though it had no “stars” to boast of, its company featured more than a few actors early in their careers who’ve since gone on to great heights such as Becky Ann Baker, John Bolton, Michael Cerveris, Victoria Clark, David Costabile, Brian D’Arcy James and Martin Moran, to name but a few. Add in vets like Allan Corduner, Alma Cuervo, John Cunningham, David Garrison and Larry Keith, and it was a formidable cast. Surprisingly, not one of them received a Tony nomination, yet it would win all five for which was nominated, including Best Musical (one of those was for its Orchestrations, won by the legendary Jonathan Tunick, recently the recipient of his second Tony in this category for the current revival of Merrily We Roll Along). And when the original company gathered together seventeen years later in 2014 for a reunion concert at Lincoln Center, I was there to experience it once again. Backed with a chorus of 250 and played by the New York City Chamber Orchestra, it was nothing short of sensational.

Now we come to Titanic’s latest iteration in New York City, the final musical in this most excellent Encores! season. Having previously scored with Once Upon a Mattress (Broadway bound for a limited run beginning next month) and Jelly’s Last Jam (superb), who knew they could top them both with Titanic? Not an easy show to do under any circumstances, an even bigger challenge with ten days rehearsal. What Yeston has written here is monumental, a glorious mix of styles that all work, especially in the symphonic aspects of his music. But the thing that stirred me so was seeing a team of professionals like this take to their mission with such zealousness. When I saw it first on Tuesday night, it was at the start of its second week of performances and it was electric. The response was beyond enthusiastic and cast members told me afterwards that it was a very special audience. Returning for its final performance Sunday night to an even more fevered crowd wasn’t too surprising, as it was filled with people, many of whom were there for a second time as well (some more than that). Entrance applause was awarded for each major player and sustained ovations greeted every song at its finish. For a taste, check out this montage:

And oh these players. The sound they created, aided by the thirty-piece orchestra under the baton of Rob Berman, was something like I’ve never heard before at City Center (and I’ve been seeing these Encores! shows in this setting for decades). They seem to have finally cracked the formula with the sound system and the music and singing positively soared. There wasn’t a single individual on that stage that wasn’t at the top of their game. Every time someone stepped forward with a solo line it was with a force of intensity that left me gob smacked. And I wasn’t the only one, as talking with folks at intermission and after the show confirmed for me. Many with whom I spoke, fellow working professionals, simply couldn’t believe the staggering talent put forth from that stage. Like Daniel Beeman who, in the small role as Mr. Pittman, one of the crew’s officers, had a clarity of tone in his musical pronouncements that simply knocked me out with every note he sang . When Kent Overshown stepped forward with his solo line in “Lady’s Maid” and sang “I want to be a millionaire! Millionaire in America,” the strength of his tone and conviction slayed me. You can find the entire company listed at the end. They all deserve more attention than my word count here allows.

Under the attentive direction of Anne Kauffman, whose minimalistic approach was flawless, the casting (credited to the Telsey Office and Craig Burns and Rachel Hoffman) performed their highwire acts to perfection. Leading with Ramin Karimloo as stoker Frederick Barrett, whose voice truly rocked the theatre. Even when thirty-one others sang at the same time, his power shone. And what a lovely actor he is. His connection with the wonderful Alex Joseph Grayson, in the role of wireless operator Harold Bride, during their duet “The Proposal,” was palpable. Check out Karimloo in this brief clip singing "Barret's Song":

Jose Llana as the ship’s architect Thomas Andrews, was on fire both nights I saw the show, never more so than his final solo, “Mr. Andrews’ Vision.” There's fine work too from Brandon Uranowitz as Ismay, the ship’s owner, and Chuck Cooper as its Captain. Fan that I am of Peter Stone’s book, I'd be the first to admit that he doesn't paint with many subtle brush strokes. But there are ways of transcending that which a lot of these actors took advantage of, particularly in some of the supporting roles.

As sterling examples, the warm humanity Eddie Cooper brought to Henry Etches, a First Class steward, and the first class performances of Bonnie Milligan and Drew Gehling as Alice and Edgar Beane, drawing from their equally unique comic sensibilities in believably funny and heart-wrenching portrayals. And finally, Chip Zien and Judy Kuhn—bona fide theatrical royalty—as Isidor and Ida Straus, the Macys' magnate and his wife, who lost their lives on the ship; he famously refusing a lifeboat to allow women and children first, and she refusing to leave without him, condemning them both to drowning. Their late in Act Two duet "Still," an emotional highpoint of the musical, received overpowering and well-deserved cheers. And in grand fashion, Zien and Kuhn took the final bows of the evening, which was right and proper. Here they are, briefly, singing some of "Still":

I should mention there are some (many of whom I know personally) that don't share my "Titanic" love, neither for Peter Stone's book nor Maury Yeston's score, which is their prerogative. I'm not trying to convert anyone, but it does puzzle me that they don't hear what I hear. Certainly, both Tuesday and Sunday, I found myself surrounded by like-minded individuals of every age and stripe, for which I'm grateful. In the end there's nothing better than sharing in a breathtakingly beautiful evening such as this. Honestly, it was a privlege.

The complete company of Titanic:

Next season, Encores! have taken the pains to unearth the score of Kurt Weill and Alan Jay Lerner’s Love Life, which never received an original cast album in its first (and only) Broadway production in 1948. The other two shows are more recent, but then again, recent is a relative term. Complaints that it’s too soon for The Wild Party and Urinetown need to take into account that by next spring their original productions will have been twenty-four and twenty-five years ago, respectively. That’s enough to make them nostalgic for me. For further ticket information, go to https://www.nycitycenter.org/events-tickets/2025-encores-series/.

If you enjoyed this, please check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. To receive all future columns by email, hit the blue FOLLOW button.

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Ron Fassler

Ron Fassler is a theatre historian, drama critic and author of "Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway."