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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
at American Airlines Theatre

GILDED LILY
By MATT WINDMAN

  Kristin Chenoweth/ Ph: Joan Marcus

It takes 16 hours to ride from Chicago to New York in On the Twentieth Century, the delicious 1978 screwball musical comedy about the mayhem that occurs while aboard a 1930s luxury liner, but it took almost four decades for the show (which lost the Tony for Best Musical to Ain’t Misbehavin’) to receive its first Broadway revival. Except for a one-night-only Actors’ Fund concert production about a decade ago, it hasn’t been heard since then.

On the Twentieth Century is one of those musicals that musical theater aficionados either love or loathe – as opposed to one like The King & I (also being revived on Broadway this season), which everyone respects solemnly as a golden-age standard. I must admit that I fall into the first category of those who love it. With music by Cy Coleman (Sweet Charity, City of Angels) and lyrics and book by Betty Comden and Adolph Green (On the Town, Wonderful Town), On the Twentieth Century conveys the excitement of the period with jazzy touches and the over-the-top, narcissistic personalities of its main characters with operatic vocal flourishes.

The plot is based on the 1932 Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur play Twentieth Century (which became a film directed by Howard Hawks with John Barrymore and Carole Lombard). Oscar Jaffe, once a prominent Broadway producer, has fallen into disgrace and bankruptcy after multiple flops. But he tells his two lackeys about his last-chance scheme: to convince Lily Garland, his former muse and lover, who became a major movie star after leaving him, to star in his next show. Jaffe has learned that Lily is about to board the train, along with her latest boy-toy.

Lily, when approached about returning to Oscar’s fold, laughs off the idea, loving the fact that he has fallen from power. But she does still love Oscar – and he loves her, in spite of his machinations. With the help of a religious, rich, apparently insane woman onboard, Oscar proposes that Lily play Mary Magdalene in a stage drama. More craziness ensues, until finally all ends in a well-deserved, happy ending smooch between Oscar and Lily.

I must confess that I did not see Hal Prince’s original production. Hell, I wasn’t even born yet. But many of those who did talk of it like a once-in-a-lifetime event, with unbelievable scenery, a large orchestra, and exceptional performances from John Cullum, Judy Kaye (very few actually got to see Madeline Kahn as Lily), Imogene Coca and Kevin Kline. However, I have listened to the vocally pristine original cast album repeatedly for years. As such, I encountered the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival with very high expectations – perhaps even unrealistic expectations.

All things considered, Scott Ellis’ revival is thoroughly entertaining. In fact, I am hard pressed to think of any other show from the current season I enjoyed more. The art deco set, depicting the interior and exterior of the train, looks fabulous. And as in the original production, huge gusts of smoke burst out of the orchestra pit during the overture. The lead actors are appropriately hammy. But could the production have been even better? I think so – with a larger orchestra to do justice to the dynamic score and different casting.

Kristin Chenoweth, with her rich singing voice and brilliant knack for comedy, was born to play diva Lily Garland. More often than not, she has the audience in the palm of her hand. But she does look a tad mature to be playing Lily. There ought to be an age gap between Oscar and Lily. Frankly, it’s a shame that Chenoweth didn’t play the role a decade ago, back when she was Glinda in Wicked.

Peter Gallagher, who missed numerous preview performances due to illness, lacks the robust voice that John Cullum brought to the role (which reflects the character’s robust ego). But he does convey Oscar Jaffe’s maniacal egotism with a dashing spirit and sex appeal. If I had my druthers, I would have rather seen Brian Stokes Mitchell or Marc Kudisch play the part, but I’ll settle for Gallagher (who was a divine Sky Masterson in the 1990s Guys and Dolls). Douglas Sills, who played Jaffe in the Actors’ Fund concert, was a bit too flamboyant, but I’d be interested in seeing him take on the role if the production extends into an open-ended run.

The supporting cast is thoroughly terrific, including Andy Karl (“Rocky”) as Bruce, Michael McGrath and Mark Linn-Baker as Oscar’s harried staffers, Mary Louise Wilson as Mrs. Primrose and a quartet of sunny, tap-dancing train porters.

 


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