Sound Advice Reviews
On the Twentieth Century
ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
Early in the show, the leading male character, a theatre producer fresh from a fiasco, proclaims: "I rise again! ... I shine again!" He's down, but not quite out of the game, still game for another bold or blind move. And so the wacky On the Twentieth Century, first seen on Broadway in early 1978, rises again, too. Much fizzy fun is to be heard on the new cast album of the splashy, over-the-top tale taking place on the train that gives the show its title (based on an earlier play and film). Not every track rises to the deliciously hammy heights of that splendid first cast's recording, but those were hard-to-top over-the-top performances. This two-disc set has much to offer in not being a clone, with plenty of its own juicy moments, including some material not heard on the other album.
This screwball comedy about the devious and desperate producer pursuing his embittered, self-loving ex-love and ex-star for a new show is full of laughs in its tiffs, bluffs, and show biz hyperbole. That goes for the lyrics and the book, both concocted by the veteran team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green, whose other On the ... show, On the Town, is also back on the Great White Way. Especially notable about this release is that, with the decision to go the double-disc route, there's room for lots of (separately tracked) brief dialogue segments. Especially for disc buyers who are new "passengers" on this train voyage, that means plenty of valuable context that makes the nonsense make more sense. And plenty of chuckles, too. All the included dialogue and lyrics are included in the booklet, which also has a detailed plot synopsis, Patrick Pacheco's enthused essay of appreciation, credits, and plenty of full-page color photos of the production.
Note that there's a change of concept, (most of the) lyrics, and tempo for one number. The melody that was once "The Legacy" (where he willed his cape and overdue income tax bills, etc.) for our shameless producer Oscar, begins with the same words as set-up for his portraying his fate as an impoverished and pathetic pencil-seller on the streets. But then, rather than list the items he'd pass on if he passed on, it's something else entirely. Sung more seriously, without totally jettisoning jokiness, it's become "Because of Her." With Comden and Green now gone (as well as their collaborating composer Cy Coleman), Green's daughter Amanda (High Fidelity, Bring It On, Hands on a Hardbody) was called on for tweaking on this one piece, as she was for the recent Peter Pan live TV version. She came up with some appealing words here that blend pretty comfortably with the score's flavor (I like "Was I jealous? Possibly/ Forgetful? Who can remember?/ Was I unfaithful? It was Pittsburgh! Nothing counts in Pittsburgh!" and, referring to his cronies, "Cruel irony!? left here with rum-soaked Tweedledum and Tweedledee!" It puts the focus on hating to lose the love/hate relationship, rather than having one more self-aggrandizing/ self-pity showcase. And while I do love and miss "The Legacy," the replacement better suits performer Peter Gallagher whose strong suit is not being the loud, proud peacock. This is evident from his lackluster "I Rise Again," which doesn't mine all of the humor in its chutzpah. His performance gets significantly better as things go along, and he rises to the occasion in his interaction when sharing song material with others.
The demands of the leading lady's role makes it super-suitable for the strong suits of Kristin Chenoweth. As Lily, she's just right playing a struttingly solipsistic diva, reveling in being wanted by men as an actress and lover. And her split-personality vocal imagesthe chattering chipmunk contrasted with the soaring soprano high notes at home with operatic stylingsare equally impressive and entertaining. Perhaps there isn't all that much in between the extremes, but that makes it funnier in a way. She nails the notes and the style as her voice floats, singing the two syllables of Oscar's name repeatedly with true beauty. Her first scene, as a nerdy and nervous piano accompanist correcting a floundering auditionee by demonstrating the way a melody goes, suddenly singing with ease and purity, is a knockout. (This incidental bit that defies its would-be-throwaway status, "The Indian Maiden's Lament," is a hoot.) And this star shines quite brightly throughout most of the score and scenes. While she would have benefitted by indulging in a few more ounces of venom in the declamation of rejection, "Never," she makes the dame who always wants to be the center of attention exactly that. She's at her comedic, scenery-chewing Chenowethian best relishing, imagining, or actually acting out the scripts she's presented with as stage heroines "Veronique," "Babette" and, yes, the Bible's Mary Magdalene.
There's some substantial support here with Andy Karl (our recent Rocky) as Lily's paramour du jour and Michael McGrath and Mark Linn-Baker as Oscar's cohorts. But more goofiness would have been welcome from them and Mary Louise Wilson as presumed wealthy religious fanatic, Mrs. Primrose, who is endearingly dotty yet not fully living up to what she's described as in the likeably frantic company number, "She's a Nut."
Some of the big numbers are not necessarily the biggest triumphs (Oscar and Lily's "Our Private World" is a little lacking in atmosphere, ending up being neither lovely nor sweet enough to win points as the sincere moment of beauty, nor grand as an example of its type or an exaggeration). But some smaller numbers hit the target. I love the executions of the running gag of three different amateur playwrights eagerly approaching producer Oscar at inopportune times, with their scripts based on what they've seen in their daily jobs (for example, the doctor brandishing the pages with the plot based on the typical happenings in "a gastroenterologist's day!") Sounds like a must-read, huh?
The sound and production are vibrant and lovingly polished, as we've come to expect from the PS Classics label and its producers, Tommy Krasker and Philip Chaffin, and engineer Bart Migal. The 13-piece orchestra conducted by Kevin Stites sounds more plentiful and full of zing, playing not just the instruments, but also the crucial humor. This savvy spoofing of operetta style and of theatrical egos remains a delight. Not to be lost in the showy shuffle is the secret to its success: composer Cy Coleman's pastiche-y parodying doesn't settle for mere mimicry, but rather presents a banquet of melodies which, on their own merits, are grandly crafted and catchy.
I long for a longer overture and more generous-length Entr'Acte and some instrumental reprises. (While advances in technology and cinematic-style scene changesor fewer setsmean a reduction in stage waits, the would-be enjoyable instrumental scene change music becomes extinct. Darn that progress!) Orchestrations are by the talented and very busy Larry Hochmancurrently represented on Broadway also by The Visit, Something Rotten!, Aladdin, and The Book of Mormon (!)with additional work in this area credited to Bruce Coughlin and James Abbott.
On the Twentieth Century's spiffy new recording is enjoyable and frisky, and presents ample evidence of what a fine, fine score it is, its writers at the top of their gameand it's more than interesting to hear this alternate version with its somewhat different accents.