Theatre Diva’s Reflects on Titanic: The Musical—Elevated Afloat With Its Captain Chuck Cooper

By   |   July 2, 2024   |   Entertainment

The doomed ocean liner that struck into the iceberg and sunk and with it the lives of more than 15,000 people. And then out of legend sprang movies, like the James Cameron movie you know of. The same year it came out, just a few months before, rose Titanic: The Musical on Broadway.

We would be here all day if I were to speak of the production troubles of Titanic: The Musical on Broadway, as well as its triumph of a two-year run and win for the Tony Best Musical in 1997. To simplify matters, Titanic is loaded with a cargo of riches, the first being Maury Yeston’s swelling score and harmonies that meld into fountains of sonic riches with the right vocal talents.

If this generation of viewers might be a tad more critical of the Titanic book or perhaps retelling it without distinctive reimagining; the epic scope itself concerned itself with class though could not make space for dialogue of race (historically, six Chinese men were abroad and Haitian second-class Joseph Philippe Lemercier Laroche tragically perished) other than anti-Irish sentiment.

Though this makes Titanic: The Musical, with the late Peter Stone’s book frozen in time, it’s at least roomy to utilize multi-ethnic casting across classes in its post-Broadway era. 

Until Encores!, Titanic hasn’t necessarily made its homecoming to the grand New York stage, although a small-scaled U.K. staging was live-captured for the cinema and Broadway HD streaming (I reviewed this production on /Film).

Helmed by an outsized cast of Who’s Who in theatre, Titanic as a short-run Encores! (tightly directed by Anne Kauffman) is a champagne bottle exploding with exuberance.

But you know who stood as monumental as the Titanic itself? The Captain. Or should I say, Chuck Cooper? I’m singling him out because his performance pulls all the technological themes and human themes of Titanic into his gravitational orbit. (Chuck Cooper was among family with his children Eddie and Lilli Cooper among the cast.)

I can note that wondrous vocals nail down the technical enthrallments of Yeston’s score (buoyed by Jonathan Tunick‘s orchestrations), though few cast members proved rough around the edges in fleshing out their characters in the acting territory (for newcomers, keep in mind that Encores! rehearsal times are short and everyone is experienced enough to more than make do).

Amid a sea of standouts: Chip Zien and Judy Kuhn as the heartbreaking Straus couple, Alex Joseph Grayson as the nerdy radioman and Bonnie Milligan as the fangirl-of-first-class-living Alice Beane prove whole as a layered cake with their characterizations.

But then there’s Cooper, a clarion call, who carries the weight of dimensional humanity: his avuncular kindness to his crew, his faults with technological trust, his upright seniority, weighty guilt with practiced calm, and his ultimate humbling. He elevates the Titanic. Whenever he spoke, even in crisis, I believed that he could levitate the ocean liner out of its doom.

For more info about the Encores! series at the New. York City Center, see here.

Photo credit: New York City Center

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