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A CurtainUp Review
On The Twentieth Century
By Elyse Sommer
The Roundabout Theater took audiences back to that glamorous era of redcaps and posh private compartments once before. But their 2004 was an update by Ken Ludwig of Hecht and McArthur original straight play.
That did make it to Broadway unlike Bruce Millholland's Napoleon On Broadway on which it was based. On The Twentieth Century But while it became a smash movie hit for Carole Lombard and John Barrymore, it wasn't a stage success until Cy Coleman, Betty Comden and Adolph Green turned it into a deliciously tuneful musical. Neither Ludwig's changes or the Roundabout's cast made a strong case for bringing back the non-musical version. ( my review of that production).
Happily the wish with which I ended my 2004 review has now come true: The Roundabout's current take on that madcap sixteen hour Chicago to New York ride is buoyed by Cy Coleman's sophisticated operetta-ish score and Betty Comden and Adolph Green's witty book and lyrics. Ignore quibbles from fans of the original Hal Prince production about this being a paler version. Just count on having a fine time.
To add to the fun, and this On the Twentieth Century is above all great fun, there's the large top to bottom cast of musical pros. (Who could be more perfect Lily Garland than Kristin Chenoweth?) There's also Warren Carlyle's nifty, story supporting choreography and lots of gorgeous, period evoking outfits by master costumer William Ivey Long. All the above, with director Scott Ellis to keep the screwball silliness whizzing along as smoothly as that fancy railroad did in its day.
David Rockwell's sleek art deco scrim immediately establishes the atmosphere. And despite an orchestra downsized in keeping with current practice, once Kevin Stiles strikes up the band for the overture, you know that you're in for an aural as well as a visual treat. The stage comes alive with a non-stop parade of colorful stage pictures animated by sparkling solos and duets as well as numbers to showcase the large ensemble. The songs aren't ear-clinging hummers, but they are a shining example of polished musical theater.
Trains have long served as fine story backdrops, most often for mysteries. Actually, there is a mystery at play here. It involves a bible toting multi-millionaire named Letitia Peabody Primrose (Mary Louise Wilson) who turns out to be an unanticipated miracle to help down-on-his-luck producer Oscar Jaffee (Peter Gallagher) actualize his scheme to revitalize his flagging fortunes.
Central to Jaffee's scheme is movie star and former lover Lily Garland (Kristin Chenoweth) whose career he launched when she was still a dumpy rehearsal pianist from the Bronx named Mildred Plotka. In order to persuade Lily to sign on for his next project he has booked a compartment adjoining hers on the New York bound Twentieth Century Limited.
Oscar is a lot more confident that he can sign up Lily during the 16-hour train ride than his business Manager Oliver Webb (Mark Linn Baker) and press agent Owen O'Malley (Michael McGrath). But typical of other such duos (think of the two show-stopping gangsters in Kiss Me Kate), Baker and McGrath are invaluable assets throughout. They loyally fend off actors who rant about being "stranded again" in the opening number and wow to "Saddle Up the Horses on the 20th Century" (declaring "Ours not to question, ours not to reason/Ours to obey").
Making Oscar's pursuit of Lily especially problematic is the fact that she's accompanied by her narcissistic boy-toy Bruce Granit (Andy Karl) — that is until, the bible toting Primrose rachets up the screwball aspects of the comedy. Besides her wildly generous financial support Primrose inspires Jaffee to make his next project a drama about Mary Magdalene, a role too meaty for Lily to resist. The nutty old lady subplot, besides tying into the will-she-or-won't-she-sign-on main story line, seeds one of the show's most exhilarating production number, "She's a Nut."
While the story unfolds mainly in the train's compartments and parlor car, David Rockwell has provided assorted other locations. These include the red-carpeted train station for some fancy footwork and singing by Jaffee's stranded actors and the other train passengers.
The two stars don't immediately come on scene but when they do, you won't be disappointed. In a flashback to Oscar's glory days Gallagher evokes the man's charm, magnetism and determination with a touching "I Rise Again."
Then, of course, there's Kristin Chenoweth. This petite vocal powerhouse also happens to be a gifted comedienne to bring the house down with the impeccably timed physical business her role calls for. Her appearance in Oscar's remembrance of first seeing her is the first of her many bravura scenes. As she more or less takes over Imelda Thornton's (Paula Leggett Chase) audition, so the star lurking beneath that dowdy Mildred Plotka exterior bursts into full bloom.
To say Chenoweth is superb both as Mildred and the glamorous Lily is an understatement. Her way with operatic trills is ideally suited to Cy Coleman's operetta inflected score. She and Gallagher have good chemistry, most notably in their lovely "Our Private World" duet and their rip-roaring "Lily/Oscar" finale. They also are potent presences in ensemble numbers like the second act's catchy "Sign Lily Sign.
Though Chenoweth adds a very special luster to this production, and one wishes she were on stage all the time, the show boasts plenty of show stopping, eye-popping and ear caressing star power. Mary Louis Wilson is deliciously wacky as the nutty Letitia Primrose. Andy Karl who earned deserved praise for his performance in Rocky and The Mystery of Edwin Drood delivers knockout comedic talent as the self-absorbed Bruce Granit
Not to be overlooked in any mention on this train ride's many pleasures, are the four porters whose synchronized tap dancing and singing opens each act.
When On the Twentieth Century, the musical first opened on Broadway in 1978, Variety noted that it indicated an increasing tendency for Broadway shows to stress grandiose spectacles. Since then the economy has forced those spectacles to make room for more modest productions, making an occasional spectacle like this one spectacularly enjoyable.
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