On The Twentieth Century
The Peninsula’s acclaimed Foothill Music Theatre, under the able direction of Jay Manley, is currently presenting Cy Coleman, Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s rarely performed On the Twentieth Century. This was my fourth viewing of the “opera bouffe.” I first saw the jazzy musical at the St. James Theatre in New York, starring a dream cast of John Cullum, Madeline Kahn, Imogene Coca, Kevin Kline and George Coe. It ran 449 performances in New York. Richard Eder of the New York Times called the musical “funny, elegant and totally cheerful.” On the Twentieth Century then toured with Rock Hudson and Judy Kaye. Following the original and touring productions, the musical was rarely revived since it is a hard show to present. The Cy Coleman comic opera score is not to everyone’s taste, with grandiloquent music and suggestions of operetta composers like Rudolph Friml and Sigmund Romberg. About three weeks ago, I caught the Los Angeles Reprise version, a full scale production with Bob Gunton and Carolee Carmello and a 27-piece orchestra backing them up.
I was a little apprehensive about seeing the Foothill offering so soon after see the big Los Angeles production, since Jay Manley is presenting the musical in a band box studio theatre at Foothill College. I just did not think anyone could pull off such a big, brassy, difficult musical in such a small space. I have been proven wrong - the director has done an amazing job, and Tyler Risk offers some good choreography. It's absolutely amazing that Manley is able to get 27 members of the cast doing everything great on such a small stage.
On the Twentieth Century is based on the early 1930s film starring John Barrymore and Carole Lombard. In this comedy of egos, Broadway producer and director Oscar Jaffe (John Edward Clark) is leaving Chicago just one step ahead of his creditors since his latest production has been a disaster. His actors are unpaid and his assets have been seized. Larger than life Oscar finds out that his former protégée and leading lady Lily Garland (Milissa Carey) is going to take the Twentieth Century Limited (a train, for all of you younger folks) from Chicago to New York. Lily has become a legendary movie star and she is going to New York to star in a Max Jacobs (Nicolae Muntean) theatrical production. Oscar quickly devises a plan for a last ditch, career-saving endeavor to convince Lily to star in his latest play. That Oscar completely lacks funds, the absence of a script and the fact that Lily now despises Oscar are minor matters that must be overcome. Also traveling with Lily is her narcissistic lover and movie co-star Bruce (David Curley) who uses Lily as a meal ticket. Another person on the train is Letitia Primrose (Linda Piccone), a religious fanatic and heiress to the Primrose Pills fortune. What happens during this 2-1/2 hour boisterously funny train ride is unpredictable and lighthearted.
Jay Manley wisely left the complete full orchestra overture on a soundtrack at the beginning of the musical, since this ambitious score needs a full orchestra to get the fast paced show underway. Also, all 27 members are on the small stage doing various things during the overture and it is a razzle-dazzle opening. The chorus is super and their combined actions are very professional.
John Edward Clark plays Oscar more like Alfred Drake than John Barrymore, and he is superb in the role. Clark is just getting over a bout of laryngitis and in the first number (which is a killer), “I Rise Again,” he talks his way through the song. However, for the rest of his songs he is in fine voice. He has a well trained, rich voice that works well with Ms. Carey as Lily. She is smashing in the role and gives a polished performance as the movie star, conquering the extreme vocal range of her songs. There are times when she almost looks and acts like the late Madeline Kahn, especially in the number “Veronique.”
There are slight differences from the recent Los Angeles production. “Life is Like a Train” opens up the second act with the full cast of 27 singing the song, while at Reprise, the four “train porters” sang the song at the beginning of the show. The “Babette” number by Ms. Carey is better than the Reprise version; however “Veronique” was more showy in Los Angeles. This production is a faster paced farce. Musical direction by Catherine Snider consists of a piano and I believe a synthesizer. It works very well on this small stage.
On the Twentieth Century runs thru March 16 at the Foothill College Studio Theatre, 12345 El Monte Rd, Las Altos Hills. For tickets call 650-948-4444. Their next production will be Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls, which opens on July 18th.