Review | ‘Titanic’ sets sail concert-style at City Center

Ramin Karimloo and the cast of Titanic revival
Ramin Karimloo and the cast of “Titanic” in concert at City Center.
Photo by Joan Marcus/provided

Who needs a ship (or at least elaborate scenery to suggest an early 20th century ocean liner) when you have a 30-piece orchestra handling Maury Yeston’s symphonic-style score of “Titanic”?

Likewise, who needs Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio when you have a 32-person Broadway caliber cast?

The Encores! series at City Center is concluding its unusually-strong 2024 season (which also included “Once Upon a Mattress,” which will transfer to Broadway this summer, and “Jelly’s Last Jam”) with an equally sharp concert-style production of the large-scale, sung-through musical directed by Anne Kauffman (“The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window”).

The year 1997 saw the premiere of both the movie “Titanic” (which proved to be the final blockbuster romance/historical epic of 20th century Hollywood) and the Broadway musical “Titanic” (which defied ridicule in the press and ongoing technical challenges to win the Tony Award for Best Musical and enjoy a two-year run).

AJ Shively, Emilie Kouatchou, Jose Llana, Chuck Cooper, Brandon Uranowitz, Andrew Durand and Samantha Williams in “Titanic” at City Center.Photo by Joan Marcus/provided

While “Titanic” is in some ways a product of the mega-musicals of the 1980s (which went big on melodrama, spectacular set design and lush music), it is also an unconventional work. The panoramic book by Peter Stone (“1776”) treats the musical as an ensemble piece, with many characters from different backgrounds and an emphasis on class inequality and technological progress.

It is not so different from “Ragtime,” which also premiered on Broadway in 1997 – and which will receive its own much-welcome City Center production in the fall.

The original Broadway cast of “Titanic” included, among others, Michael Cerveris, Victoria Clark, Brian d’Arcy James, David Garrison, Becky Ann Baker and even music director Ted Sperling. The Encores! cast is led by Chuck Cooper, Lilli Cooper, Andrew Durand, Ramin Karimloo, Judy Kuhn, Jose Llana, Bonnie Milligan, Brandon Uranowitz, and Chip Zien. These are all familiar names to regular theatergoers.

Andrew Durand and Samantha Williams in “Titanic.”Photo by Joan Marcus/provided

Milligan, who won a Tony Award last season for “Kimberly Akimbo,” plays the unexpectedly memorable Alice Beane, a middle-aged second-class passenger who is also a celebrity worshipper and fan of gossip. Interestingly, the role was originated by Victoria Clark, Milligan’s co-star in “Kimberly Akimbo.” (Clark herself made a comic cameo at one performance of the Encores! production last week.)

“Titanic” is often choppy, schmaltzy and melodramatic, but the show certainly has its moments, including the extraordinary prologue (in which the characters are introduced as they board the ship and which finishes with a majestic choral hymn) and a rhapsodic, show-stopping counterpart duet between a boiler room stoker (Karimloo) and a mild-mannered telegraphist (Alex Joseph Grayson).

Whereas many Encores! productions are so fully-staged that they might as well be on Broadway, “Titanic” is treated as a concert – or rather a cantata, a narrative piece of music told through ensemble and orchestra. Although one may miss the shape-shifting, multi-level original set design and period costumes, “Titanic” can work without the visual spectacle, shifting the emphasis completely to the score, which is indeed titanic in sound and emotional sweep.

On opening night, a much respected theater director who sat across the aisle from me claimed that I looked as if I was in a state of euphoria during the show’s opening number. Indeed I was – and maybe you will be too.

City Center, 131 W. 55th St., nycitycenter.org. Through June 23.