‘Titanic’ Review: Encores Raises The Ship of Dreams For The 21st Century

New York City Center Encores! has done itself proud on with its revival of the Tony-winning Best Musical of 1997.

AJ Shively, Emilie Kouatchou, Jose Llana, Chuck Cooper, Brandon Uranowitz, Andrew Durand and Samantha Williams (front row, from left) in Titanic. Joan Marcus

The Tony-winning Best Musical of 1997 and the Oscar-winning Best Picture of 1997 were both titled Titanic and told the same tale: the disastrous maiden voyage of a supposedly indestructible “Ship of Dreams,” which struck an iceberg 95 miles from land and took 1,517 souls to watery graves. It remains the most famous maritime tragedy of the last century.

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Hardly an apt notion for a musical, you’d think, but that’s seriously underestimating the stirring melodies and heartfelt lyrics which Maury Yeston pinned to the project. One of his greatest and most complex scores is filled with music that is majestic, then somber, loving in its ballads, hymn-like on occasion and more-often-than-not soaring.

Problematic reviews came close to scuttering the show the first time around, but the public came to its rescue. Titanic ran 804 performances on Broadway and won all five of its Tony nominations: Best Musical, Best Score (Yeston), Best Book (Peter Stone), Best Orchestrations (Jonathan Tunick) and Best Scenic Design (Stewart Laing). The only thing that was missing after that was to have The Times’ Ben Brantley eat his mean-spirited original review in public. 

Titanic is currently making its first appearance in New York in this century as one of New York City Center’s Encores! (running through June 23). Certainly, the June 11th opening-night crowd reacted accordingly, enthusiastically embracing its return with ovations.

Encores! has spared us the technically cumbersome illusion of a ship—hell, there’s not even a life-jacket around—but it does maintain the impression of a three-tier vessel. Raised to the upper-most level is the captain’s brig, containing 30 musicians led by the brilliant Rob Berman.

Director Anne Kauffman has beautifully arranged her cast of 32 in groups of threes across the main stage, each according to its class status. In third class are the poor, immigrants in search of a new beginning in the new land. Above them are the second class chafing a bit from being in middle; one lass in particular (Bonnie Milligan inheriting the role done originally by her Kimberly Akimbo co-star, Victoria Clark) wants to mingle with an eligible millionaire.

Chip Zien and Judy Kuhn in Titanic. Joan Marcus

Traveling first class (as well they should) are the owner (Brandon Uranowitz), designer (Jose Llana) and captain (Chuck Cooper) of “The Largest Moving Object” in the world. Uranowitz, as the director of the White Star Line, is the show’s major irritant, needling the captain for more speed. Also comfortably ensconced here: monied titans like John Jacob Astor (Evan Harrington) and Isidor Straus of Macy’s (Chip Zien) and his wife of 40 years, Ida (Judy Kuhn); the latter has a heart-swelling moment realizing, “As we have lived together, so we shall die together.” 

Chuck Cooper, who looks quite spiffy in his Navy whites and is very much the booming voice of authority as the ship’s captain, has a couple of real-life offspring on board: his daughter Lilli Cooper is a decorative addition to the trio of Three Kates, all dreaming of jobs and love in America, and his son Eddie Cooper plays the head of the wait staff who proves to be proficient at removing champagne corks with the swing of a sword.

Eddie Cooper (center) and the cast of Titanic. Joan Marcus

A lovely scene evolves among the ship staff when a stoker (Ramin Karimloo) talks the radioman (Alex Joseph Grayson) into tapping out a marriage proposal to the girl he had left behind. Other notable contributions are made by Adam Chanler-Berat, A.J. Shively and Andrew Durand.

Act One pretty much ends with the sighting of the iceberg, in a sudden white tower of light. Act Two is primarily about how humanity comes to grips with the dire circumstances. Instead of having a whole ship that tilts, the point is made when a tea cart rolls of its own volition to the other side of the stage. Encores! has done itself proud on all levels here.

By all means, get those tickets. Here’s hoping you’re not the guy rushing on stage, bags in hand, as the Titanic has left Southampton, railing that he will be “the laughingstock of Poughkeepsie. If that isn’t the story of my entire goddamn life!”

Titanic | 2hrs 40mins. One intermission. | New York City Center | 131 West 55th Street | 212-581-1212 | Buy Tickets Here 

‘Titanic’ Review: Encores Raises The Ship of Dreams For The 21st Century