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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
On the Twentieth Century
The sleek New York Central Railroad line with its posh private compartments inspired a 1934 screwball movie comedy starring John Barrymore as Oscar Jaffe, a flamboyant, down-on-his-luck theater impresario, and Carole Lombard as Lily Garland, his former lover and star. To the musical book and lyric writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green and composer Cy Coleman the theatricality of the setting and the characters begged to be set to music and in 1979 they concocted On the Twentieth Century: The Musical. It is this show, which ran on Broadway for 449 performances and won 5 Tonys, that Ms. Boyd has brought back to life with her usual flair for lively staging, energizing her performers, and her ability to overcome the limitations of a regional theater budget as well as the acoustical shortcomings of her venue.
Like the deservedly praised production of Cabaret (our review), On the Twentieth Century re-creates its era. Set designer Sarah Lambert provides just enough of the look and atmosphere of the legendary train to serve as a backdrop for the zany plot: Producer Jaffe (Dennis Parlato) has had four successive flops but is convinced that his luck will turn if he can woo back Lily Garland (Kim Crosby) whose career he launched when she was still a Bronx commuter named Mildred Plotka. In order to persuade her to sign on for his next project he has booked a compartment adjoining Lily's on the New York bound Twentieth Century Limited. His 16-hour effort is abetted by his weary but loyal sidekicks Oliver Webb (Peter Kapetan) and Owen O'Malley (John Dewar). Lily has other ideas, as does her egomaniacal boy-toy Bruce Granit (Christopher Yates). The screwball aspects of the comedy are personified by a bible-touting millionaire named Letitia Primrose (Joy Franz) who happily opens her checkbook to finance a drama about Mary Magdalene. Toss in an ensemble that includes a philandering politician, a conductor, and a doctor who interrupt Jaffe's campaign to win Lily back with descriptions of the plays they've written and you've got a train ride guaranteed to be anything but smooth.
While the story unfolds in the train's compartments and parlor car, a number of other locations are cleverly inserted. In addition to the red-carpeted train station where the actors in Jaffe's company find themselves stranded without train fare, there's a flashback which take us back to Oscar's glory days when Lily as a still unglamorous Mildred Plotka arrives in Oscar's office to play the piano for an actress auditioning for a role. Mildred's transformation from mousy pianist to star-in-the-making is a show-stopper. Crosby is superb both as Mildred and the glamorous, amorous Lily -- and with a voice to match (Think Barbra Streisand and Miss Marmelstein!) Her a-star-is-born scene is one of numerous show stoppers, and Crosby's performance not the sole standout. Joy Franz is a wonderfully wacky Letitia Primrose. Christopher Yates, whom Barrington Stage regulars will remember as Cliff Bradshaw in Cabaret, demonstrates strong comedic skills as Lily's jealous and vain lover. Still in the most memorable performance department there's Peter Kapetan's consistently funny Oscar Jaffe. Dennis Parlato, while an attractive Oscar, falls somewhat short of the magnetism required of the central role, both in terms of acting and singing.
As I usually do when I see a musical revival, I consulted my copy of Robert Gottlieb's and Robert Kimball's Reading Lyrics. Sure enough, Comden and Greene are represented with a number of standards (songs whose titles and lyrics immediately evoke the music). Though not hum-in-the-shower songs, the Twentieth Century score and lyrics nevertheless exemplify musical theater at its most sophisticated and enjoyable. Act one gets off to a grand start with the ensemble's snappy "Stranded Again" and soars with a wonderful duet, "Our Private World ". Act two has a bunch of dazzlers , especially "Sign, Lily, Sign" and " She's a Nut" and "Babbette."
Tony Parise has created some terrific dance numbers for the excellent ensemble which at times swells in size thanks to the double duty done by the key players. Fabio Toblini's costumes are spot-on circa 1930s (I especially liked Bruce's nifty hounds tooth checkered suit!) and Jeff Croiter's lighting adds to the atmosphere.
Some interesting trivia about the original Broadway production. The actor who portrayed Oscar Jaffe was the same John Cullum who stars in the musical that has triumphantly progressed from the Fringe, to Off-Broadway to Broadway despite its title, Urinetown. The late Madeleine Kahn played Lily Garland. Also in the cast was Imogene Coca and a stage newcomer named Kevin Kline. The show's lavish sets also prompted the trade paper Variety to comment on the increasing tendency for Broadway shows to stress grandiose spectacles. With Broadway staging ever more spectacular, Ms. Boyd's handsome if comparatively simple production demonstrates that affordably staged musicals, without megastars and extraordinary special effects still have the power to charm and entertain.