Titanic steamed into Avery Fisher Hall last night and received a more-than-rousing reception from a house packed with thousands of diehard fans of the 1997 musical by Maury Yeston and Peter Stone. Not only were the musical numbers ecstatically (and deservedly) received; many of the members of the original cast who were on hand to recreate their roles were greeted with strong entrance applause. To borrow a phrase from Walter Lord's 1955 bestseller about the ill-fated maiden voyage, it was "a night to remember."
Titanic was the massive musical that overcame a rocky in-town preview period to become the Best Musical of the 1996-97 season, winning Tony Awards for Yeston, Stone, designer Stewart Laing, and Jonathan Tunick (inaugurating the new category of Best Orchestrations). The show ran two years, which was not quite enough to bear the outsized costs — including a shipload of scenery and a cast of 42 — but sufficient to establish it as one of the most significant musicals of its time.
Stripped of scenery and costumes, but supported by a full orchestra conducted by original music director Kevin Stites — and including seven members of the 26 piece opening night pit band — Yeston's score sounded glorious. Augmenting the effect was an added chorus; while the original show was sung wholly by the principals, last night's event added more than 200 singers from seven high school choirs coming from as far as Nebraska and Colorado. Craig Arnold of Manhattan Concert Productions, which offered last year's concert version of Ragtime, produced. Don Stephenson, who in 1997 played the second class Englishman eloping with a member of the nobility (and who was subsequently a replacement star of The Producers), directed the concert.
More than half of the original cast was assembled, with 22 actors recreating their roles. Some of the cast members have gone on to Broadway stardom, like Michael Cerveris and Brian d'Arcy James. (Among the most celebrated of the originals was the then-little known Victoria Clark, who all but stole the show as Alice Beane, the second class passenger who storms the First Class deck. Clark was announced for the concert but withdrew last week.) Others have been little seen in the interval, but last night the years seemed to melt away. The voices were true, if not always as strong as originally, with the various solos — Yeston's score is filled with important solos for many of the characters — ringing authentic. The most significant of these solos were those written for the three crew members. D'Arcy James' "Barrett's Song" and "The Proposal," Martin Moran's "The Night Was Alive," and David Elder's "No Moon" were all as chillingly pristine as they were on opening night in 1997. Cerveris, John Cunningham and David Garrison reprised their roles as architect, captain and owner, climaxing in their vicious trio "The Blame" and the architect's wild "Vision" as he pores over the blueprints while the ship goes down. Theresa McCarthy and Jennifer Piech were joined by Erin Hill as the three Kates, scoring with the charming-turned-majestic anthem "Lady's Maid." Michele Ragusa, who played a small role in the original, moved up to Clark's role of Alice Beane and did especially well. David Costabile and John Bolton helped steer the proceedings from the bridge, while Ted Sperling was back onboard — with his violin — as ship bandleader Hartley. As the evening approached its inevitable climax, Alma Cuervo and Ron Raines as the Strauses of Macy's offered the tender showstopper "Still." Serving as a central cog — and a humanizing touch as the ship starts to sink — was Allan Corduner as Etches, the First Class Steward.
The bravura fifteen-minute opening sequence ("The Launching") drew an almost astonished ovation from the crowd. The show was intact with one addition, an operetta-like duet called "I Give You My Hand." This was cut during previews, leaving the characters played by Stephenson (the concert's director) and Judith Blazer without a major singing moment. Performed here by Ryan Silverman and Jill Paice, one understands how it doesn't enhance the show.
The performance ended with a firestorm of curtain calls, capped by Yeston graciously bowing to the audience and acknowledging the late librettist Stone, whose picture appeared on a screen above the stage. This was a one-shot Titanic, but fans of the musical can look forward to Thom Southerland's intimate production from London's Southwark Playhouse, which is scheduled for Toronto in July and Broadway in the fall. The concert suggests that Yeston's Titanic remains as powerful and glorious as originally.