On The Twentieth Century
Also see Sharon's review of Belfast Blues
On the sliding scale of production values we've seen from Reprise, its current production of On The Twentieth Century is one of the best. It begins by putting a 23-piece orchestra, the largest ever for Reprise, behind a 22-member cast. There are a lot of people making music here, and it is a real treat to hear such a full sound in the relatively intimate space of the Freud Playhouse. Other production values are equally lavish by Reprise's frugal standards - scenic designer Bradley Kaye and costume designer Randy Gardell were permitted to create set pieces and costumes which appear only for a single scene or joke, in addition to the main set on which all the action takes place.
With all of these elements promisingly in place, it is that much more disappointing that On The Twentieth Century fails to deliver the goods. Taking place on a luxury train in the early 1930s, the comedy tells the story of a down-on-his-luck theatrical producer who has a 16-hour train ride in which to convince his former leading lady to return to his stage and his arms. That's pretty much it. The book by Comden and Green doesn't have much in the way of subplots, and, at least in this production, the absence is keenly felt. Instead of a fast-moving madcap journey, we get a linear plot that just keeps on chugging inexorably to its conclusion.
The one time the script takes a detour is the highlight of the show. Early in the first act, we are treated to a flashback scene, where producer Oscar Jaffee first met future star Lily Garland. Lily was then a rehearsal pianist playing for another woman's audition. Carolee Carmello is terrific as the young Lily - she has had a bad day and doesn't care who knows it. Lily is a little fiery, a little angry, a little well-meaning, and all New York. And when she is convinced by Jaffee to read a scene of his play, her transformation from shy out-of-her-depth hopeful into big Broadway star is played out perfectly in her performance of the delightfully cheesy number, "Veronique." So astonishing is this sequence that we forget it is a flashback, as we are completely enveloped by Lily's debut.
But once the flashback fades, we are back on the train. The Lily of the present is simply a standard big movie star, dripping with phoniness and complete with cardboard boyfriend (actually, he's named Granit). While it is certainly important to the plot that present-day Lily not be as fun as she used to be, Carmello's one-dimensional Lily is simply not engaging enough to hold up her half of the show, no matter how beautifully she sings. Bob Gunton has a little more to work with as Oscar, a scheming, conniving (yet likeable) producer out of the same mold that gave the world Max Bialystock. His character-defining number, "I Rise Again," is also his best. Oscar overplays everything, but Gunton doesn't seem fake - he is honestly playing an overactor, and he reaps the resulting laughter. But here, too, there is something lacking. There is no chemistry whatsoever between Oscar and Lily, and no urgency in Oscar's desire to get her back before the train arrives in New York.
A few supporting performances are worthy of note. Mimi Hines plays Letitia Primrose, a wealthy religious woman who promises to bankroll Oscar's next play. Her one song, "Repent" is delightful, and Hines' delivery has the right balance between sweet high-pitched reverence and the occasional low comedy low note. Oscar has two hangers-on - what's a producer without a toady? - played by Dan Butler and Robert Picardo. They're both solid, but Picardo really shines with his fully committed portrayal. Both Butler and Picardo sing their songs and do their little dance steps, but Picardo is out there really selling it with every word, expression, and reaction. It is a shame that the script does not give his character much to do beyond following Oscar's orders; Picardo certainly could have carried a subplot of his own, and the show would have been more fun for it.
Reprise's On The Twentieth Century looks good and sounds even better. But despite these trappings, it is a slow-moving one-track journey which rarely engages the audience.
On The Twentieth Century plays at the Freud Playhouse through February 2, 2003. For more information, visit www.reprise.org.
Reprise! Broadway's Best; Marica Seligson, Producing Artistic Director; Jim Gardia, Managing Director; presents On The Twentieth Century. Book and Lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green; Music by Cy Coleman. Based on the plays by Ben Hecht, Charles Macarthur, and Bruce Millholland; Broadway production directed by Harold Prince; Produced on the Broadway stage by Robert Fryer, Mary Lee Johnson, James Cresson, Martin Richards. Scenic design Bradley Kaye; Costume design Randy Gardell; Lighting design Tom Ruzika; Sound design Philip G. Allen; Associate musical director Steve Orich; Technical director Peter Falco; Stage Manager Jill Gold; Casting director Bruce H. Newberg, C.S.A; Press representative Davidson & Choy Publicity; General manager Kelly Estrella; Managing director Jim Gardia. Produced by Marcia Seligson; Music direction by Gerald Sternbach; Choreographed by Kay Cole; Directed by David Lee.