On The Twentieth Century
Review by Tulis McCall
On The Twentieth Century has pulled into the proverbial station at the Roundabout’s American airlines Theatre. On time and in splendid form. There are a lot of reasons to pick up the phone NOW and get tickets to this production. Pretty much all of them are contained in the 5 foot nuthin’ frame of one Kristin Chenoweth. Pound for pound this dame packs more punch than a boatload of prizefighters.
Based on the play by the same name this musical is a predictable piece of fluff that Scott Ellis has whipped up into a soufflé of extraordinary proportions. It is as fine a production as you will find anywhere. And if musicals are your preferred theatrical flavor, you will be in h-e-a-v-e-n.
Back in the day, trains were the preferred mode of transportation between anywhere and anywhere. They had names: The Jeffersonian, The Denver Zeohyr and yes, The Twentieth Century. In this case, the year is 1930 and Oscar Jaffe (Peter Gallagher) and his two serfs Oliver (Mark Linn baker) and Owen (Michael McGrath) are leaving, make that fleeing, Chicago where Oscar’s most recent production has flopped. His creditors would like to have his head or his hide, whichever is more painful for him to lose. Jaffe has sent his lackeys on ahead to procure Drawing Room A. Easily done when said drawing room is occupied by a certain Senator and his doll, who would like to reman anonymous
Once he arrives, clinging to the side of the train, Oscar takes a devil-may-care attitude to their predicament, in spite of the caution his underlings urge him to exercise. Oscar is already on to his next project, which is to recapture the heart of the woman he loves, the woman he turned into a star, the woman who deserted him and the theatre for – egad – Hollywood: Lily Garland (Chenoweth). She will be on The Twentieth Century in Drawing Room B. Lily boards at the appointed stop with her latest beau Bruce Granit (A hilarious Andy Karl)
And the games begin.
Oliver is the chosen messenger sent to Lily and refused – Chenoweth stops the show with her performance of Never that she delivers with Gatling gun speed and precision.
Meantime there is mystery person on the train who is posting Repent messages thither and yon. We are let in on her identity: Letitia Primrose (Mary Louise Wilson) and are serenaded with her litany of the sins that people are committing, thus endangering the entire world.
Oscar, with only hours to go until New York, is racking his brain for an idea to bring to Lily that will woo her back. He comes upon a Repent sign and has a lightbulb moment. Why not do the story of The Magdelen? Lily could never refuse THAT. All hands on deck: Contract, press releases and Bible Study. Jaffe decides to send in the big guns, meaning himself. More refusal, but a crack in Lily’s armor appears.
Mrs. Primrose offers to back the show because of its holy mission. Bingo. This will be too tempting for our temptress to refuse. As a matter of fact, adding a zero or two on her check will be no problem. Lily is s good as won.
Things do not go smoothly, however, and musical madness ensues. Long story short, the guy gets his gal, and the gal gets her starring role.
The music by Cy Coleman is catchy but not memorable. The orchestration and the singing, however, are exquisite. This is an ensemble cast that makes a joyful noise and appears to double in size before your eyes. The costumes by William Ivey Long are almost overwhelming in their radiance, not to mention their rapidity. The pacing is brisk and appears effortless. The slapstick is smooth as silk. Peter Gallagher is a wonderful surprise as a standup singer. Linn-Baker and McGrath are solid and dry as a bone. Mary Louise Wilson is having so much fun she cannot contain herself.
The cherry on the top is Chenoweth. She is nearly radioactive on that stage. She can sing; she can dance; she can act. A veritable triple threat who is not satisfied unless she is hitting it out of the park. She is a home run with every move, note and gesture. Not only that, but she will go the extra mile and leap out of the box into some astonishing time warp and pull the stops out with a move that makes your head spin.
I look forward to seeing her in a musical that matches her every molecule of talent.
This production of On The Twentieth Century show is a brilliant comet that should not be missed. It makes you remember that while the first rule of medicine is “Do no harm,” the first rule of theatre is “Entertain, entertain, entertain.” Bravo!!!
ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY – Book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green; music by Cy Coleman; based on plays by Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur and Bruce Millholland;directed by Scott Ellis
WITH: Kristin Chenoweth (Mildred Plotka/Lily Garland), Peter Gallagher (Oscar Jaffee), Andy Karl (Bruce Granit), Mark Linn-Baker (Oliver Webb), Michael McGrath (Owen O’Malley), Mary Louise Wilson (Letitia Peabody Primrose), James Moye (ensemble), Rick Faugno (ensemble), Richard Riaz Yoder (ensemble), Phillip Attmore (ensemble) and Drew King (ensemble).
Original Broadway production directed by Harold Prince; choreography by Warren Carlyle; music direction by Kevin Stites; sets by David Rockwell; costumes by William Ivey Long; lighting by Donald Holder; sound by Jon Weston; orchestrations by Larry Hochman; dance arrangements and incidental music by David Krane; music coordinator, John Miller; hair and wig design by Paul Huntley; additional material by Marco Pennette; additional lyrics by Amanda Green; makeup design, Anne Ford-Coates; associate director, Kasey R T Graham; associate choreographer, Angie Canuel; production stage manager, Scott Taylor Rollison; stage manager, Matthew Lacey; production management, Aurora Productions; general manager, Denise Cooper; associate managing director, Steve Dow; associate artistic director, Mr. Ellis; executive producer, Ms. Beers. Presented by Roundabout Theater Company, Todd Haimes, artistic director; Harold Wolpert, managing director; Julia C. Levy, executive director; Sydney Beers, general manager. At the American Airlines Theater, 227 West 42nd Street, Manhattan; 212-719-1300, roundabouttheatre.org. Through July 5. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.