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Broadway Reviews

On the Twentieth Century

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 15, 2015

On the Twentieth Century Book & lyrics by Betty Comden & Adolph Green. Music by Cy Coleman. Based on plays by Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur, and Bruce Millholland. Original Broadway production directed by Harold Prince. Directed by Scott Ellis. Choreographed by Warren Carlyle. Music direction by Kevin Stites. Set design by David Rockwell. Costume design by William Ivey Long. Lighting design by Donald Holder. Sound design by Jon Weston. Orchestrations by Larry Hochman. Dance arrangements and incidental music by David Krane. Musical Coordinator John Miller. Hair & wig design by Paul Huntley. Additional material by Marco Pennette. Additional lyrics by Amanda Green. Cast: Kristin Chenoweth, Peter Gallagher, Andy Karl, Mark Linn-Baker, Michael McGrath, with Phillip Attmore, Justin Bowen, Preston Truman Boyd, Paula Leggett Chase, Ben Crawford, Rick Faugno, Jenifer Foote, Bahiyah Hibah, Drew King, Analisa Leaming, Kevin Ligon, Erica Mansfield, James Moye, Linda Mugleston, Mamie Parris, Andy Taylor, Jim Walton, Richard Riaz Yoder, and Mary Louise Wilson.
Theatre: American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes, including one intermission
Schedule: Limited engagement through July 5.
Tues at 8, Wed at 2 and 8, Thur at 8, Fri at 8, Sat at 2 and 8, Sun at 2.

Kristin Chenoweth and Peter Gallagher
Photo by Joan Marcus

When traveling, should luggage handling ever be more than half the fun? Probably not, but you're better off not complaining when the trip you're taking is the Roundabout Theatre Company's new revival of On the Twentieth Century, which just opened at the American Airlines. Despite the shimmering pedigree of the musical's writers (Cy Coleman, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green) and its billed stars (Kristin Chenoweth and Peter Gallagher), the four men in charge of the suitcases are really where it's at.

As the porters aboard the Twentieth Century Limited as it embarks on its 16-hour journey between Chicago and New York, Rick Faugno, Richard Riaz Yoder, Phillip Attmore, and Drew King make the most mundane of tasks seem electric. Carrying those suitcases. Opening doors. Crossing the stage. Heck, standing still—not that they do that, so much, given that they spend most of their time swirling, leaping, strutting, or (best of all) tapping from wing to wing.

This is most evident in the second-act opening number, “Life Is Like a Train,” when, outfitted with just tap shoes and ironclad skills, they capture the excitement, promise, and romanticism of their lot: train travel in the 1930s. During their fierce renditions of Warren Carlyle's sparkling choreography, and for that matter the rest of their appearances as both themselves and fantasy waiters and even white-clad groomsmen, they wear expressions of supreme confidence that inform you, in no uncertain terms, that they know more about what's going on than anyone around them.

That's not hard to believe. Most of the rest of this production, which has been directed by Scott Ellis, looks as though neither engineer nor conductor has bothered to check in on it for a while. Sure, it has plenty of gleaming Art Deco sets by David Rockwell, luxuriously crisp costumes by William Ivey Long, and playful lighting by Donald Holder that evoke the proper spirit, and Kevin Stites's orchestra, if a bit underpowered, is lively. But when it comes to consistency and comedy, the fires simply haven't been stoked at all. And with On the Twentieth Century, that's not just nice to have, or even important—it's crucial.

This show's reputation, to the extent it has one, has since its 1978 Broadway premiere been built on much more than the quality of Comden and Green's book and lyrics and Coleman's music. The three were, after all, adapting a somewhat-less-than-classic play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur (who based theirs on one by Bruce Millholland), into the long-embalmed form of a comic operetta. And their writing reflects these challenges and limitations, with an excess of goofiness and a pastiche score that, if long on forced fun, is short on dramatic or emotional impact.

Still, add that trio's talents to a creative mix that also included director Harold Prince and set designer Robin Wagner, toss in a couple of established stars (John Cullum, Imogene Coca), one star in the making (Kevin Kline), and add a juicy dose of controversy (female lead Madeline Kahn was unhappy and inconsistent, and was replaced with the then-unknown Judy Kaye), and you have the stuff of theatrical legends. The show's plot, about stage producer Oscar Jaffee trying to woo back to the theatre Lily Garland, the nothing he made into a movie star, was understandably secondary.

Andy Karl, Kristin Chenoweth and Peter Gallagher
Photo by Joan Marcus

Stripped of all that occasion, however, On the Twentieth Century is, at best, a lower-second-tier musical that's more likely than not to go off the rails if not treated with the utmost care. It has not received that care this time around.

Numerous tweaks to the script and score (Marco Pennette is credited with “additional material”) chip away at the already-fragile foundation. And though Ellis has imbued the proceedings with an appropriately frantic feel, he hasn't provided the basis for a zany otherworldliness that can generate real laughs from the outsized situations that crop up; nothing matters to anyone enough. As with On the Town (which can be seen on Broadway just a few steps away, at the Lyric), Comden and Green write big and thus require Big—because Coleman's thunderous music, which samples all the plumiest of 30s stage genres, does as well, nothing small can survive.

Ellis's cast is nearly microscopic as utilized here. Chenoweth certainly possesses the weighty but agile soprano Lily needs to convey lust, rage, and everything in between as Lily confronts, considers, and rebuffs Oscar's professional and personal advances. And, as usual, she sounds terrific negotiating the high-flying likes of the defiant “Never,” the coquettish “Babette,” and the lush “Our Private World.” But though Chenoweth is a legitimate star comedian, and has proven it on Broadway multiple times (You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown; Wicked; The Apple Tree), she's forever at odds with Lily.

Bulging eyes, a twisted neck, and damsel-in-distress poses are all well and good, but they're at most ornaments to comedy, and shouldn't be the extent of it as they are in Chenoweth's performance. Utterly absent are any hint of Lily's yearnings, or her deeper arsenal of tools: imperiousness, sexiness, treachery, even box office pull. She never once seems like a woman who could evolve from mousy accompanist to Hollywood headliner; in fact, she's only fully at home during her first few minutes when she's Mildred Plotka, whose sarcasm, wit, and feistiness evaporate the moment she transforms into Lily (during a void of a Paris-themed number called “Veronique”)—but these are just what Lily most needs.

Not much better is Gallagher, whose voice isn't sufficiently booming and whose take on Oscar is deadeningly realistic and not gleefully, delightfully melodramatic. Lily and success are not overwhelming needs, and thus don't (and can't) drive him to the despair that encourages his outrageousness, so the character makes very little sense. It doesn't help that his late second-act solo “The Legacy” has been refashioned (by Amanda Green) into a distastefully earnest ballad called “Because of Her,” that makes Oscar seem human—one thing he most assuredly is not.

Andy Karl lacks the sweeping matinee idol bravura needed for Lily's empty-headed boyfriend, Bruce Granit; and the other secondary roles of Oscar's flunkies are filled, passably if unmemorably, by Mark Linn-Baker and Michael McGrath. In bit comedic parts, Jim Walton, Andy Taylor, Linda Mugleston, and James Moye shine brightly for a few moments and then vanish. The only performance of sustained capability comes from Mary Louise Wilson, who's subtly but imposingly vacant as religious crusader (and would-be investing angel) Letitia Primrose, around whom large chunks of the middle of the show—and this production's sole, genuinely and energetically funny sequence (the “She's a Nut” chase)—revolve.

For those few moments, acting, staging, and sets are in perfect sync, and you get a hint of what On the Twentieth Century is truly capable of being. Otherwise, this production only moves when that dynamic quartet of porters wants it to. Their sole responsibility, in the show's terms, is to guide you to your room, and on the way they lead a giddy wake of panache behind them. Their work is superb throughout, and don't be surprised if you find yourself waiting for their next appearance. This trip shouldn't be that way, of course, but what do you expect when your ride is laden with so much additional baggage?

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