The stylish state-of-the-art locomotive by David Rockwell gleams in brilliant Art Deco glory. But that's nothing compared to the practically nuclear glow that comes off Kristin Chenoweth, whose singular talent and skills are tailor-made for a role originated on Broadway in 1978 by Madeline Kahn. Chenoweth is a stick of blond dynamite, a virtuoso comedian and singer. She uses her petite body, ample bosom and middle finger for a laugh. She hits every high C in the joyous and eclectic score that pushes the plot along expertly... In the show's title song, it comes out that the Twentieth Century famously gives passengers "nothing but the best." This production, fizzy and dizzy entertainment, does likewise.
ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY Broadway Reviews
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All told, "On the Twentieth Century" is on track to score big at Tony Awards time - Chenoweth might as well start practicing her acceptance speech. Buy your tickets before the train leaves the station.
Chenoweth brings to Lily, along with those requisites, the girlish goofiness, feline sexuality and gleaming, chirping soprano - higher and brighter than Kaye's - that have made her one of her generation's most distinctive musical theater talents. At 46, Chenoweth lends both an ingenue's exuberance and a knowing wit to production numbers that require her to juggle virtual arias with hyperkinetic dance routines. Yet while Lily may well be the role of Chenoweth's career, this Century, which opened Sunday at the American Airlines Theatre, is by no means her triumph alone. In this production, directed with giddy virtuosity by Scott Ellis, every player seems perfectly cast - starting with the leading man, Peter Gallagher...
Perhaps best of all, this "Century" brings Ms. Chenoweth and Mr. Gallagher back to Broadway, where they can demonstrate the subtleties of being larger than life. These fine performers have been largely confined to television screens in recent years. And they grab the chance to chew (and devour) some real live scenery - and in Ms. Chenoweth's case, hit pretty much every note on the scale, musical and otherwise - with the ecstatic vengeance of genies let out of their bottles.
Scott Ellis's dazzling production of "On the Twentieth Century" looks like one of those legendary Broadway musicals that exists largely in our collective memory of great shows we never saw. Like those phantom productions, this 1978 tuner comes with a fine pedigree (book & lyrics by Comden & Green, music by Cy Coleman), has been mounted in high style and is performed with manic energy by a super cast toplined by charismatic stars Kirsten Chenoweth and Peter Gallagher. For a lot of us, this is the show of our dreams.
Ellis actually has him pump iron with the tiny actress as a barbell. And, over and over, Carlyle turns the four train porters into a marvelous tap-happy quartet that recreates the sound -- and the almost preposterous pleasure -- of the long-lost cross-country carriage trade. Lovely, all lovely.
In fact, On the Twentieth Century is so generous a vehicle (pun completely intended), it even lets the porters have a bona fide showstopper-the tap-tastic Act II opener "Life is Like a Train. (The charming quartet is composed of Phillip Attmore, Rick Faugno, Drew King and Richard Riaz Yoder.) It's one of many affectionate moments you'll be reflecting on later.
The 1976 Broadway musical by Cy Coleman, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green needs stars to reach full locomotion speed. And the current Broadway revival, which opened Sunday at the American Airlines Theatre, has at least one in tip-top form, Kristin Chenoweth.
Theatergoers get pretty passionate about Cy Coleman's score. I'm not one of them-this isn't really one of those shows with songs that you leave the theater humming. That said, a slew of polished comic turns and some stellar staging make it a shrewd move to hop aboard this train.
The Roundabout Theatre Company's new production with Kristin Chenoweth and Peter Gallagher doesn't live up to all that the musical could be theatrically, musically and comically. That being said, the production is still pretty damn enjoyable. To speak metaphorically, the glass may not be full, but it's certainly more than half full.
"Century" is filled with delightfully improbable madcap action, flamboyant musical numbers and polished, inventive choreography by Warren Carlyle. There's even an adorable quartet of tap-dancing porters. Chenoweth glamorously milks each comical cliche while her opera-trained voice trills and soars in song after song. Golden Globe-winner Gallagher plays duplicitous theater producer Oscar Jaffee, Lily's Pygmalian-like former lover who discovered and molded her into a star. Oscar's career is fast losing steam after a string of failed plays, while Lily's continued to have wealth and success after their breakup.
The result is positively schizoid, a show that desperately wants to crack the shell of archaic convention and emerge as the madcap musical it longs to be. It has patches of memorable high style, slapstick amusement and wry songs, but also longueurs that stretch the 90-minute movie into tedium... Gallagher has the suave good looks to play Oscar but not the slightly demented charisma called for, and vocals have never been his strong point. Chenoweth certainly has what it takes in the singing department and the crowd adores her. I just wish she wasn't so charmlessly vulgar with her oversexed physical shtick.
Kristin Chenoweth, who established her career on Broadway but hasn't had a real impact there since "Wicked" in 2002, returns in what's probably her most entertaining performance yet. Playing the impossibly self-centered '30s movie star Lily Garland, in the altogether delightful revival of the 1979 musical, she reminds us that, besides having a great soprano voice, she's the funniest leading lady around. Using her distinctive high-pitched speaking voice - little-girl mixed with brass - as a deadpan comic weapon, she cavorts buoyantly through the show, as nimble physically as she is verbally.
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.
Lily is a role that calls for a true coloratura, and Chenoweth's voice remains a rare instrument, effortlessly scaling the trilling peaks while the actress scampers mischievously through every bit of campy, self-worshipping comic business in the book. Gallagher proves to be almost her match by hamming up a storm as a character perhaps even more flamboyant than Lily, even if the supposedly deep-rooted connection between them is unconvincing. (There's no evidence of the recent vocal strain that caused him to miss a stretch of previews.) However, the performances remain wedded to a broad slap-shtick mode that gets very old very fast, much like the antique sight gag of a cartwheeling granny. And while both Lily's and Oscar's songs are virtuoso comedy turns, the problem is they're seldom fun; at least not for long.... People sitting near me were roaring with laughter, so the show's cornball humor was obviously working for some. But while I was as ready as the next guy to be taken on a delirious musical journey, the train never leaves the station.
There's no gainsaying that the beloved Chenoweth -- seemingly born to play the role (whereas she wasn't nearly right for Fran Kubelik in Promises Promises, her last B'way stint) -- and Gallagher carry off as much of the yuk-hunting love-hate relationship as they can. It's also undeniable that somehow what the book writers kept of the comically combustible give-and-take for this treatment doesn't provide the performers enough to sink their honed teeth into. Comden and Green never supply a sense of what Jaffee did to alienate Lily to the extent he apparently has. Nor do they suggest what her rise to fame might have contributed to her side of the rift.
There are a million big reasons that On the Twentieth Century, the 1978 musical by Cy Coleman and Comden and Green, shouldn't work today: It's profoundly silly, tonally tricky, too big for the market, and a very hard sing. Indeed, the Roundabout's delicious revival at the American Airlines crashes intermittently into most of those problems. But there's nevertheless one small reason - about four-foot-eleven - it works anyway: Kristin Chenoweth. She is a comic genius in a role ideally suited to her gifts.
What's the trouble? Well, it's tough to love a musical with such unexceptional songs. Several of them are pastiche numbers - Indian Maiden's Lament, Veronique, Babette - tunes from properties that Oscar and his rival Max Jacobs (James Moye) want to produce. The latter two offer a lot of fun to the design team, but they're neither terrific nor terrible enough to really land. The overture and the opening number Saddle Up the Horse/On the 20th Century are nicely exciting and there's a quality comic tune in Sign Lily Sign, but already it's hard to remember any of the others. Without a first-class score to bolster the madcappery, even an engine as forceful as the Twentieth Century's sometimes runs out of steam.