On the Twentieth Century
Modeled after the wildly successful City Center Encores! Series in New York, Overture Productions brings staged concert versions of lesser-known musicals to renowned Boston stages. This time at the gorgeous Cutler Majestic Theatre at Emerson College, their mounting of On the Twentieth Century produces a glossy finish on what can only be called a terribly weak book.
A 1978 collaboration between Cy Coleman (music) and Betty Comden and Adolph Green (book and lyrics), Twentieth Century could easily have been called Kiss Me, Kate: The Prequel. Declining theatre producer Oscar Jaffe (Dvorsky) is intent on securing former flame Lily Garland (Ripley) for his new show while traveling aboard the famed locomotive Twentieth Century from Chicago to New York. The overly large ensemble sings at the top of the show that “anything can happen in those sixteen hours,” and despite a surplus of zany characters and melodramatic intentions, not a whole lot does.
It’s a shame that what was probably written as a fond tribute to the madcap musicals of the Thirties produces so little steam. Alice Ripley (Tony nominated for Broadway’s Side Show) tries till it hurts to give Lily some dimension, but it is only in her first scene that the character is forced into any sort of human impersonation. Told in flashback to when Oscar first met and decided to transform the rough-edged piano player from the Bronx into an acting legend, Ripley relishes Lily’s uncouth demeanor and accent, displaying an enormous gift for physical comedy. Though later Lily is all arched eyebrows, ruby lips and glittering, snowy ball gown (designed with a hit-or-miss outcome by Charles Schoonmaker), it is her pre-Pygmalion self that ultimately proves more interesting. At least Ripley gets plenty of chances to unleash her silvery soprano along the way, most notably in the manic “Babette.”
Dvorsky, on the other hand, is smooth, unblemished arrogance throughout. Most widely seen as Count Ludovic in Lincoln Center’s Passion on PBS, Dvorsky embraces Jaffe’s well-oiled confidence and has the soaring, rumbling voice to match it. Sadly, his Jaffe is also in step with all the other characters, meaning that while the trains chugs along, he ultimately goes nowhere.
Certainly the most rewarding aspect of Twentieth Century lies in the talented hands of musical director Michael Joseph. His 21-piece orchestra provides a sumptuous rendition of Coleman’s music, and he even gets to do a little inadvertent acting himself during Cheryl McMahon’s rousing and crowd-pleasing “Repent.” Complementing the lush musicality is a quartet of local tap-dancing boys led by 17-year-old Cyrus Brooks, who inject some truly impressive staccato footnotes into the score.
Though director Tony McLean and producer Deb Poppel have assembled what can only be called a dream cast (standouts include McMahon as religious fanatic Letitia Peabody Primrose, Megan Tillman as demanding singer Imelda, Andrew Giordano as Lily’s hunky boyfriend Bruce, and John King as nimble-footed Conductor Flanagan), the material itself is more temperamental than a Hollywood diva. The journey may be 16 hours, but that doesn’t mean the show should feel like it.
On the Twentieth Century ran through September 25 at the Cutler Majestic Theatre at Emerson College, 219 Tremont Street.