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BWW Reviews: Chenoweth Glitters in ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY

Since its 1978 Broadway opening, there has rarely been a Broadway musical comedy approaching the perfection that was director Harold Prince's original production of On The Twentieth Century.

Kristin Chenoweth and Peter Gallagher (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The last great musical by the smart and clever team of bookwriter/lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green, their story of a down and out Broadway producer trying to save his career by signing his long-ago discovery (and long-ago lover), now a glamourous Hollywood star, to a stage contract, was taken from Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's 1932 hit, Twentieth Century, which in turn was taken from Charles Bruce Millholland's unproduced play suggested from his experiences working for David Belasco, Napoleon of Broadway.

The show's unique setting is the luxury liner train, 20th Century Ltd., speeding from Chicago to New York in 16 hours, giving the downtrodden, but never defeated, Oscar Jaffe, a strict deadline for his access to the fiercely independent Lily Garland, who won't forgive or forget her Svengali's controlling manner.

Cy Coleman, mostly known for his cool jazz compositions, whipped up a score unlike anything else he's ever done, mimicking the limitless egos of the show's protagonists with demanding comic operetta flourishes while imitating the motion of the train with insistent rhythms that charge to the final curtain.

The over-the-top performances by original stars Madeline Kahn, John Cullum, Imogene Cocoa and Kevin Kline matched the over-the-top nature of their characters and designer Robin Wagner's spectacular art deco set, frequently choreographed to Coleman's music, was true to era's fixation with glitter and glamour.

It would be foolhardy and unfair to expect a non-profit theatre company, even one on Broadway, to match the opulence of On The Twentieth Century's original production, but this is a show that demands a mounting of indomitable spirit. The last time it was done in New York, The Actors' Fund's one-night concert production lived up to that spirit on a minimal budget.

Director Scott Ellis' Roundabout mounting has its good points, one great point, and its disappointments, but the material by Comden, Green and Coleman (even with this staging's numerous and unnecessary cuts and additions) is certainly good enough to provide a terrific night out, even with a mediocre production.

The one spectacular plus is the superlative performance of Kristin Chenoweth, whose unique comic brio is perfectly suited to Comden and Green's intellectual eccentricities. Her Lily perfectly spoofs platinum blonde Hollywood sex appeal while exemplifying its most desirable traits. Her vocal dexterity mines the humor of the most innocent-seeming lines and she can draw enormous laughs with the most casual of reactions. Her soprano soars with clarity and comical exuberance. It's a sterling performance worthy of being the career highlight of a Broadway star.

Peter Gallagher gives a fine acting performance as Oscar, giving him a plummy classical manner with a maniacal twinge, but at this time his singing does not live up to the demands of the grandiose score. To be fair, he's been recovering from a sinus infection that has forced him to miss numerous preview performances. In past productions, Gallagher has been more of a crooner, and a very good one, so perhaps it remains to be seen how he'll truly be able to handle the role's vocals.

Kristin Chenoweth, Peter Gallagher, Mark Linn-Baker, Michael McGrath,
Mary Louise Wilson and Andy Karl (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Gallagher is also put at a disadvantage because the character's biggest moment, the 11 o'clock number "The Legacy," where Oscar lists the numerous theatre-related valuables he intends to leave to his associates after he's gone, has been rewritten by Amanda Green to "Because of Her," with a lesser lyric describing what Lily has meant to him.

In his supporting role as Lily's dim-witted leading man and lover, Andy Karl exudes comic charisma with his acting and singing. His muscular biceps are so well featured they should receive separate billing, but a scene where he's continually physically restrained by two characters who would be no physical match for him rings false.

Beloved character actress Mary Louise Wilson also seems somewhat restrained as Letitia Primrose, the wealthy religious fanatic who offers to finance Oscar's proposed Biblical epic starring Lily as Mary Magdalene. She appears to be trying to ground a nutty comical role in realism, losing many of the laughs in the process. More effective are Michael McGrath and Mark Linn-Baker as Oscar's much-beleaguered henchmen.

The train's four tap-dancing porters were the only characters played by black actors in the original production. They are now a racially-diverse quartet, played with show-stopping personality by Rick Faugno, Richard Riaz Yoder, Phillip Attmore and Drew King. Their roles have been expanded to include a dazzling sequence choreographed by Warren Charlyle, where their tapping replicates the rhythms of a train leaving the station.

Though William Ivy Long displays wit and style with his costumes and David Rockwell's set, though lacking in extravagance, nicely replicates the period's art deco craze, Hershy Kay's sumptuous orchestrations have sadly been ditched. The thin sound emitted from the pit should more likely be blamed on the decision to go with a reduced orchestra than on the work of new orchestrator Larry Hochman. (Also sadly reduced is the major sight-gag that ends the first act.)

While it's good to have this somewhat underappreciated musical back on the boards, a production that matched the work of its glittering leading lady would be a more welcome arrival.

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