Review: Laugh Your Way Through a Musical Screwball Ride ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
The glamorous passenger train Twentieth Century Limited, which ran between New York and Chicago between 1902 and 1967, is the main setting for the musical screwball comedy ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY now playing through August 27 at the Pan-Andreas Theatre, 5119 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90038. Based partly on the 1930s film and play of the same name, the musical, with book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and music by Cy Coleman, is part operetta, part farce, and part screwball comedy telling the story of the behind-the-scenes relationship between Lily, a temperamental actress and Oscar, a bankrupt theatre producer. The duo, played with great skill and comedic timing by Alena Bernardi and Wade Kelley, recount the tale of their adventure traveling from Chicago to New York in the 1930s as Oscar tries to cajole the glamorous Hollywood star into playing the lead in his new, but not-yet-written drama, and perhaps to rekindle their romance.
The musical ran on Broadway in 1978-1979, running for 449 performances and winning five Tony Awards with Madeline Kahn in the role of Hollywood movie star Lily Garland. Several revivals followed in London and elsewhere, and a 2015 Broadway revival featured Kristin Chenoweth. Given the play's original 1932 publication and 1934 film, the musical is a perfect fit for the Proof Doubt Closer Theatre Company with their mission to present lost classics, new and recent works awaiting their chance, and buried treasures awaiting rediscovery. Directed at a fast pace by Trace Oakley, one of the group's founders/producers (along with the musical's star Alena Bernardi who also acts as the production's musical director), ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY certainly lives up to being an over-the-top comedic satire of the acting style so prevalent in the screwball comedies from the 1930s.
In brief, the plot centers on Oscar Jaffe, an egomaniacal Broadway producer who has sustained a string of recent flops and is now dodging creditors, who boards the train heading to New York with his latest group of disgruntled actors. On the train, he hopes to recruit his former Broadway leading lady and muse, Lily Garland, now a Hollywood movie star, and to have her signed to star in his new not-yet-written play and thereby save his career and stay out of jail. But she's on her way to meet with his competitor, Max Jacobs (Stephen Juhl), to sign up for his play. Jaffe believes he's found an investor in a fellow passenger and heiress, the religiously fervent Letitia Primrose (Georgan George), who writes a check big enough to entice Lily to renew her working relationship with Oscar and save his career, sung to with great reverence in "Five Zeros." But Ms. Primrose turns out to be certifiably insane so how can she be trusted?
Adding to the mix of assorted train riders are Conductor Flanagan (Phillip McBride) and his three tap dancing porters (Nicole Sevey, Talya Sinde, Rowan Treadway) who manage to keep on smiling broadly no matter what goes on around them. Their barbershop quartet style of singing produced appealing harmonies throughout, accompanied by an outstanding four-piece band (Cynthia Cook-Heath of piano, Millie Martin on bass, Michael Dubin on drums, and the amazing Christian Robinson on trumpet), whose lively style enhanced every song, especially the Act II entr'acte in which the four porters philosophically declare that "Life Is Like a Train" with choreography by Averi Quinn Yorek.
Of course, there are many characters on the train who hope to present Oscar with their play, hoping he will make it into his next hit show. Among them are the dashing Bruce Granit (Nathan Jenisch), Lily's latest pretty boy Hollywood actor, and the train's Dr. Johnson (Chelsea Pope) who, when Oscar claims to be too busy to read her script, threatens to be too busy to treat him if he needs medical attention during the train ride. Their renditions of "I Have Written a Play" describe in comic detail exactly why they believe their self-proclaimed masterpiece will be Oscar's new big hit.
Oscar's flask-drinking sidekicks and sometimes press agents Owen O'Malley (Nate Beals) and Oliver Webb (Rafael Orduna), are a wonderful comic duo in the style of a great vaudeville team. Rounding out the cast of 14 are Anagabriela Cordero and Tatiana Gomez who add their lovely voices in the ensemble numbers as part of the ragtag group of stranded actors hoping following Oscar to New York will guarantee them a job.
Costumes designed by Rachel Harmon run the gambit of 1930s style, from the opening number's black and white themed wear to the flamboyant dresses worn by Lily as she attempts to attract attention from all around her. The small stage set and lighting design by Rebekah Atwell work well for this screwball comedy, making their rather flimsy construction forgivable for the sake of making the most of what little space there is for the many train compartments needed and doors through which the farcical slapstick action takes place.
The incomparable team of Coleman, Comden and Green ensure a great evening of musical fun and laughter with ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, an epic operetta farce filled with lots of action, a little romance, fast-paced dialogue and more than a dash of slapstick. Be forewarned, the Pan-Andreas Theatre is not air conditioned and dress accordingly. Performances continue through August 27, 2017 on Friday and Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 2pm. Tickets are $30 and may be ordered by calling (800) 838-3006 or online at www.ProofDoubtCloser.com
Photo credit: Nicholas Mastrolia