On the Twentieth Century
Kristin Chenoweth returns to Broadway in this musical from Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and Cy Coleman.
It feels like it's been ages since Kristin Chenoweth was last on Broadway — four years, to be exact — and that's just too darn long. Thankfully, there's a reason to rejoice, because Chenoweth is back and better than ever in On the Twentieth Century. The runaway 1978 operetta by Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and Cy Coleman is now receiving a shiny first-ever Broadway revival at the hands of director Scott Ellis and Roundabout Theatre Company. True, there are elements within Ellis' production at the American Airlines Theatre that could use a bit more polish, but when Chenoweth is onstage, all doubts disappear and we're swept into the gloriousness that is musical comedy.
The recipient of Tonys for Best Book and Best Score, the musical takes inspiration from three different works: Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's 1932 play Twentieth Century (which coincidentally played a 2004 revival at this same venue), Howard Hawks' 1934 film version, and an unproduced drama by Bruce Millholland about his experiences working for tyrannical producer David Belasco. More of a comic opera than a traditional musical, On the Twentieth Century is, at its heart, a screwball farce about a Broadway producer at the cusp of bankruptcy and the actress who can save him.
That producer is Oscar Jaffee (Peter Gallagher), who recently closed his fourth consecutive flop during intermission of its Chicago opening. The actress is Lily Garland (Chenoweth), formerly Mildred Plotka, the world-renowned movie star whose career was launched when Oscar discovered her as an audition pianist who couldn't seem to keep her opinions (and voice) to herself. Once romantically involved, their tempestuous relationship ended years earlier amid his jealousy of her success. But now they're in the same place once again, separately traveling from Chicago to New York on a luxury train (she's accompanied by her brawny new beau, an Errol Flynn-style movie star named Bruce, played by Andy Karl). Oscar takes it upon himself to finagle Lily into signing a contract to star in his latest show.
That On the Twentieth Century hasn't been seen on Broadway since its original incarnation is a bit telling about the quality of the show itself. An amusing (if lengthy) diversion to be sure, with clever lyrics by Comden and Green and an airy Coleman score set to the rhythm of a train, it's in no way as rock solid as the other shows written by this trio, together and separately (including Comden and Green's On the Town, written with Leonard Bernstein and currently running next door at the Lyric Theatre).
The degree of difficulty of the central roles, originated by Madeline Khan, John Cullum, Kevin Kline, and Imogene Coca, is likely also why the show has remained in relative obscurity; you need performers who can not only sing in an operatic style, but are also capable farceurs in the outsized emotional style of silent films. Chenoweth is all of those things rolled into one, a genius comedienne with a flawless soprano and the ability to elicit laughter from the smallest gesture. Even though it's a role that fits her like a glove, she isn't content to merely rest on her laurels. Chenoweth uses her entire arsenal of vocal ticks, facial expressions, and physical comedy to make the audience laugh, but it never seems like she's mugging. From the second she makes her transformation from Mildred to Lily (in the show-stopping Jacques Brel-esque number "Veronique"), you can see exactly why and how Mildred Plotka became a star. The same goes for Chenoweth.
Karl, as her muscly beau, is every bit Chenoweth's equal in the shtick department, effortlessly falling down, grimacing with ease as the door gets slammed on his face, and even using is tiny scene partner as a barbell. Together, they're the perfect hilarious pair.
In what's ostensibly the leading role, Gallagher, still recovering from a sinus infection that forced him to miss several preview performances, delivers a valiant effort as Oscar, but possesses neither the voice nor the panache to entirely pull it off (his chemistry with Chenoweth is also lacking heat). As a result, his onstage cronies, Michael McGrath and Mark Linn-Baker, feel like they're they're pulling back to accommodate, and not playing the comedy to their fullest abilities. The real scene-stealer rounding out the supporting cast is 83-year-old Mary Louise Wilson, who with gleeful abandon plays the small but crucial role of religious-fanatic-turned-theatrical-investor Letitia Primrose.
The production is a visual feast. From the stunning art-deco show curtain by scenic designer David Rockwell to the luxurious and thoroughly realistic train car in which the show takes place, Rockwell does an astonishing job making the American Airlines stage look both enormous and perfectly period specific. Donald Holder's glitzy lighting and William Ivey Long's glamorous costumes complement the old-Hollywood look. Warren Carlyle's superb tap-heavy choreography literally stops the show, especially when performed by a dazzling quartet of ensemble men as train porters (Rick Faugno, Richard Riaz Yoder, Phillip Attmore, and Drew King).
Director Ellis could have afforded to turn up the zaniness a notch or three to match the show's heightened comedic elements. More often than not, there is a lull when Chenoweth isn't on stage, and only once do all the elements of great farce come into play, during an antic mid-second-act number called "She's a Nut." This gut-bustlingly funny moment, which features the capable cast members at the height of their daffy powers, is a true highlight of a production that could use a few more when its star takes a well-deserved off stage breather.