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San Francisco by Richard Connema

On the Twentieth Century
Continues Its Journey to
American Musical Theatre of San Jose

Also see Richard's review of Oh, Captain!

On the Twentieth CenturyCy Coleman, Betty Comden and Adolph Green's Tony winning musical continues its astounding journey to entertain audiences on the west coast. The American Musical Theatre of San Jose is currently presenting a spectacular production of the extravagantly operatic musical On the Twentieth Century. The production values are worthy of a big Broadway show, including a full staging of the first scene that involves a "Joan of Arc" play that suddenly closes in Chicago due to lack of funds (and the cast sings "Stranded Again"). Yep, we even see Joan burning at the stake and the huge cast all dressed in period costumes, running about the stage. It is an incredible start as the musical swiftly changes to Pullman cars on the 20th Century Limited from Chicago to New York.

On the Twentieth Century started at the St. James Theatre in New York on February 19, 1978, with an all star cast including John Cullum, Madeline Kahn, Imogene Coca and Kevin Kline. I saw the production one month after it opened, and it immediately became my favorite musical. I loved the Coleman melodies which have bits of Gilbert and Sullivan, Offenbach and Sigmund Romberg. The lyrics and book by Comden and Green have a sophisticated feeling that theatre and film buffs would appreciate. I also saw Rock Hudson play the role of producer Oscar Jaffee here on the west coast. Although Rock was not a great stage actor and could not sing very well, I still enjoyed the brassy music. The musical faded into oblivion following the west coast appearance.

On the Twentieth Century had a renaissance this year when the Reprise in Los Angeles did a moderately scaled production with Bob Gunton, Carolee Carmello and Mimi Hines in the leads at the beginning of 2003 [see our review]. Foothill Musical Theatre did a great version in their small band box theater with John Edward Clark and Melissa Carey this summer [see our review]. Now, the American Musical Theatre has mounted a stunning production that is worthy of a Broadway stage.

On the Twentieth Century centers around Oscar Jaffee (Mark Jacoby), an egotistical producer who has had four flops in a row with his latest fiasco Joan of Arc in Chicago suddenly folding. He needs to get his former protégée and leading lady Lily Garland (Judith Blazer), who is now a top Hollywood movie star, in his next production. Lily is on her way to star in wunderkind producer Max Jacobs' (Colin Thomson) stage production. Oscar and Lily are in separate compartments on the streamline train heading to New York. Oscar must get Lily to sign a contract for his production of Magdalene. The main rub is that Lily had a stormy relationship with Jaffee and describes their pairing as "the mongoose and the cobra." On the train is a religious "nut," Letitia Primrose (JoAnne Worley), whom everyone thinks is a millionaire. To add to the merriment is Lily's posing and preening lover and movie co-star, Bruce Granit (Edward Staudenmayer). Everything happens on that fast moving train for the next 2 and half hours. It is a French farce on wheels.

New York actress Judith Blazer, who was in Hello Again at Lincoln Center and was Lady Caroline in Titanic, is impish in the role of Lily Garland. She plays the role as high camp, and her mugging is incredible. There is a certain Sarah Jessica Parker style in Blazer's take on the egocentric Hollywood star. Her scene at the beginning, when Lily is just a piano accompanist to Imelda (Deborah Ballesteros-Spake), is pure vaudeville shtick. Blazer's rendition of "Veronique" is a clowning highlight, with French flags waving, and she lays like a torch singer diva beneath a large cannon.

Mark Jacoby, the original Father in Ragtime, plays Oscar and is the epitome of the egotistical producer with an outrageously inflated ego. He will do anything to get Lily to sign the contract. Jacoby has a powerful, melodic voice as he sings "Our Private World" and "The Legacy," and he rises to the occasion when singing "I Rise Again" with his two press agents (played with great comic style by Jamie Torcellini and Michael Ray Wisely).

JoAnne Worley as Letitia the "nut" plays the role like she is still on "Laugh In." It is a different portrayal than the original Imogene Coca or the Reprise's Mimi Hines. Those two underplayed the role like a little minx while JoAnne goes for the jugular. She milks her one big number, "Repent," almost like an old time burlesque comic. She even uses Bea Lillie's old gag of swinging pearls around her neck. Worley uses her "Laugh In" laugh quite a lot also. The sound man made her voice too piercing, almost to a crackling hen voice, on opening night.

Edward Staudenmayer as Bruce Granit goes a little overboard as the ham Hollywood star. He plays the role like his prior role of Gaston in Beauty and the Beast. Staudenmayer is the most acrobatic Bruce I have ever seen - he swings from the set, barks and walks like a dog or an ape for Lily's sexual arousal. He has an excellent, booming voice in his duet, "Mine," with Oscar.

The AMT production has a huge cast of singers and dancers, with the four tap dancing Pullman porters dancing up a storm. Choreography by Peggy Hickey is effervescent, and one the highlights of her work is the terrific "She's A Nut" number, which is a vivid re-creation of slapstick '30s film madness. The art deco scenic design by John B. Wilson is amazing, with massive sets all built just for this production. His take on the chase scene in "She's a Nut" is worth the price of admission alone. Elizabeth Poindexter has created wonderful '30s costumes for the production, especially the dresses and gowns worn by Ms. Blazer.

Director Marc Jacobs does wonders with this cast and scene changes with such a short rehearsal period. The scene changes flow smoothly with only a few minor opening night hitches that will no doubt soon be corrected. The orchestra under the direction of Craig Bohmler (composer of Enter the Guardsman and Gunmetal Blues) gives an upbeat feel to the whole production, adding great pleasure to all of the numbers.

On the Twentieth Century runs through November 16 at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 Almaden Blvd., San Jose. For tickets call 415-3467805 or visit www.amtsj.org.

Their next presentation is a new production of Dreamgirls, a co-presentation with the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle and the Sacramento Music Circus. This production will make its first appearance in San Jose January 9 - 25.


Photo: David Allen


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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