On The Twentieth Century Steams Along

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By: Sandi Durell

 

ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY The little engine that could was Cy Coleman and Comden and Green’s 1978 offering set in 1932. And now the main reason to see this is another little engine that is unstoppable named Kristin Chenoweth. She’s the showstopper that makes this train roar.

The musical is a tongue-in-cheek wacky operetta (reminiscent of the wit and humor of G&S) as it rumbles through from Chicago to New York carrying its caricatures from Broadway and Hollywood as down and out Oscar Jaffee (Peter Gallagher), whose last play closed after the first act, tries desperately to reunite with his former lover and protégée, the now Academy winning screen star Lily Garland (nee Mildred Plotka a mousy looking pianist from the Bronx whom he discovered) by booking himself and his right hand men in the car next door to where Lily will be traveling to sign a Broadway contract for a Somerset Maugham movie Babette offered up by Max Jacobs (James Moye). Oscar’s scheme is to talk her into signing his contract for a non-existent play, helping him to finally pay off his debts and also rekindle their affections.

The zaniness just keeps rolling like a non-stop 3-Stooges comedy replete with gorgeous lame, fur and era-perfect costumes (William Ivey Long) as Chenoweth gives one of the best performances of her career providing pitch-perfect vocal somersaults from the depths to the heights as her soprano enthralls. Gallagher, a perfect type as the sleazy Broadway producer, on the other hand, doesn’t come anywhere near her vocal expertise. But tasty hams they all are, including Oscar’s sidekicks Owen O’Malley (Michael McGrath) and Oliver Webb (Mark Linn-Baker).

The screwball stuff keeps happening especially with Lily’s new boy toy Bruce Granit (what’s in a name! – Andy Karl), whose muscle frame comes straight from his starring role in Rocky as she perches as an unusual barbell on his back and front while he does push ups and bicep curls.

Religious kook Ms. Letitia Peabody Primrose (a daft hoot of a Mary Louise Wilson), decides to bank role Oscar’s show that has now suddenly been named something Biblical starring Lily as Mary Magdalene, providing fodder for Chenoweth to run with the idea in theatrical poses on-going as she begins to actually perceive of herself in the role. As Oscar says while thumbing the Bible “they don’t write dialog like this anymore.”

It’s also got four tap-dancing and harmonizing Pullman porters on hand (choreography Warren Carlyle) and a talented ensemble cast as Scott Ellis provides the direction and Kevin Stites the musical direction.

The impressive set design is by David Rockwell.   The Roundabout Theatre Company hasn’t cut any corners in this elaborate production at the American Airlines Theatre.

But make no mistake, wacky cornball humor or not, it’s the diminutive delicious package named Kristin Chenoweth, whose perfect timing and ultimate skill, is the reason to see this revival “On The Twentieth Century.”

 

American Airlines Theater, 227 West 42nd Street, www.roundabouttheatre.org thru July 5th, 2 hours, 30 minutes.

Photos: Joan Marcus

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