Turn of the Century
Rachel York and Jeff Daniels give dazzling star turns in this entertaining but not-yet-ready-for Broadway musical about a pair of songwriters transported back in time.
At midnight on Dec. 31, 1999 pianist Billy Clark (Jeff Daniels) and singer Dixie Wilson (Rachel York) find themselves transported back to Jan. 1, 1900, their heads stuffed with all the pop, jazz, rock and Broadway music yet to come. They promptly introduce the still-unwritten "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and claim it as their own, and quickly become the musical sensations of Tin Pan Alley, miraculously "writing" hit after hit. Complications come from many avenues, though, including Billy and Dixie's short relationship back in 1999. And will Harry Van Deusen (Kevin Gudahl), the composer whose sentimental ballads they supplant, find out their secret?
The show's biggest problem is that, despite the bones of a good story, the main characters' development needs to start earlier and go a little deeper. Much of the story feels truncated, with short-shrift secondary characters and subplots and too many key events squeezed into an impossible timeline of just three months.
What's left is the music, which includes tunes by four dozen writers from Stephen Foster to Rodgers and Hart to Prince. Yet, while the quantity of music is large, there are surprisingly few complete, discreet numbers intrinsic to character and story. Most songs are just snatches devoted to the repetitive merriment of musical anachronism: a vaudeville quartet does an up-tempo "As Time Goes By," scantily-clad chorus girls sing "I Am Woman," and Evelyn Nesbitt (on her swing) croons "Moon River."
Fortunately, the show is in fine fettle with a cast headlined by the dazzling, flexible-voiced York and the surprising song-and-dance turn of Daniels. In one of two original numbers (by musical supervisor Daryl Waters), Gudahl brings down the house with a vaudeville expose of Clark and Wilson. Conversely, Rachel de Benedet as Van Deusen's wife and Rebecca Finnegan as an office manager lack opportunity, not talent. Both characters need musical numbers to make a stronger impression.
Dona Granata's varied costumes bookend 100 years as her shiny 1999 party clothes give way in 1900 to luxurious homages to Cecil Beaton's Edwardian black-and-white and to Dolly Levi's beaded red dress. Scenic designer Walt Spangler's deceptively simple raked stage, seamless cyclorama, and runway around the orchestra offer an asymmetrical playing space with almost no flown-in scenery. It's intentionally neutral to give Natasha Katz's lighting full play. She almost literally paints scenery before our eyes with lighting that moves, dissolves, and replaces solid objects. Meanwhile, Noah Racey's choreography lifts from cakewalks, kick lines, soft shoe, ballroom, and boogaloo to please rather than surprise, often in ways that seem sculptural rather than presentational.