ONE OF THE BEST MUSICALS TO LOSE BEST MUSICAL
Let’s give a warm twenty-first century welcome to ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY.
Oh, true, the musical doesn’t look as impressive as it did in 1978. I was reminded of those Franklin Mint magazine ads that showed pictures of statuettes but alerted you that “Figures here shown are 5/8ths the actual size.”
This Roundabout production looks about 37.5% smaller in the categories of sets, cast and orchestra.
But if you owned a statuette that had been made of gold, you’d worry less about the size and just enjoy its inherent worth and sparkle. So appreciate this gold-standard musical from composer Cy Coleman and wordsmiths Betty Comden and Adolph Green.
The show in fact offers us a glimpse of a certain gold statuette, one that belongs to Lily Garland, whom Hollywood awarded soon after her brief Broadway career. And that brings us to a different Oscar – Oscar Jaffee, who discovered her as Mildred Plotka, changed her name and life before she flung him aside when he continued to demand the upper hand.
It’s a solid enough premise. Can you fully turn your back on the man without whom you’d still be nothing? On the other hand, can you stay with him when he insists on treating you like, well, Mildred Plotka?
The scrim that greets us is a road-show version of the original, but still enough to excite us. Director Scott Ellis plays a good deal of the first scene in front of it – bringing on the train’s four porters and passengers – thus whetting our appetites for the ample set that must be behind it. It turns out to be an opulent-for-2015 train exterior that spins around and brings us inside during the title song.
This sequence would be more exciting if choreographer Warren Carlyle hadn’t treated it as a musical scene instead of a Big Numba. That didn’t happen when original choreographer Larry Fuller staged it and received director Harold Prince’s approval.
Ellis knows that comedy is best conveyed when actors are right at the lip of the stage. He’s made the show more overtly sexual, with Kristin Chenoweth’s Lily more than once lifting up the front of her scanty “Veronique” costume and showing what’s underneath. Add to this some blatant indications that oral sex is very much in Lily and Bruce’s repertoire. Some may feel that this is too frank for 1932, but we ARE talking about show people, aren’t we?
The director also has turned Lily’s new beau Bruce Granit, amusingly played by Andy Karl, into quite the muscles-flexing bruiser. At one point, Karl picks up Chenoweth by cradling her neck in one hand and her legs in his other before he actually pumps her up and down as if she were a barbell.
But this does lead to a problem. If Bruce is that buff, how can Jaffee’s ageing milquetoasts Owen and Oliver (respectively Michael McGrath and Mark-Linn Baker – both superb) continually manhandle him? Time and time again they succeed at keeping him from entering or leaving the train compartment. From what we’ve seen of Karl’s impressive body, this Bruce could crumple each man without bothering to use six to eight fingers.
Marco Pennette has added some lines, renaming Oscar’s recent flop from THE FRENCH GIRL to JOAN OF ARC’S PROBLEM. He amusingly has Lily telling photographers “One more” and then contradicting what she’d just said by allowing “One more” and “One more” – underling how much celebrity appeals to her.
A Pennette improvement involves his curtailing a bit of the l-o-n-g second-act scene between Oscar and Lily in which he tries to convince her to star in his new drama about Mary Magdalene. He and she originally had no fewer than forty-seven exchanges before a song blessedly interrupted them. In this production, David Krane has wisely provided some incidental music underneath that helps the speed the scene along. (Credit too to Krane for a witty bit of business in “Veronique” in which he amusingly homages one of Max Steiner’s orchestrations of “La Marseillaise” as heard in CASABLANCA.)
But Pennette has also taketh away a nice moment. When successful producer (and Jaffee’s bitter rival) Max Jacobs tries to entice Lily with a Somerset Maugham script, he describes it as “half-brittle, half-sardonic, half-tragic” to which Lily responds “Three halves!” But she doesn’t add what she’d said in 1978: “Bigger than life.” That turns out to be an inadvertent reminder that this production is not as big as the one that came before it.
Still, “Life Is Like a Train,” with which the porters open the second act, scored better here than any of the fourteen times I saw this number between the second preview in 1978 and the closing performance in 1979. For what must be the most Dada-ist number in Broadway history, I never heard theatergoers go as ca-razy for these guys as this crowd did on Tuesday, rapturously appreciating each redcap tap. Many a playgoer has already gone so far to suggest that the four get a group Tony nomination, and while that seems unlikely, (much) stranger things have happened in the history of The Antoinette Perry Awards.
Mary Louise Wilson, playing Mrs. Primrose with her illusions and delusions of grand wealth, makes “Repent” a more nuanced musical theater scene. (Don’t miss her priceless expression when imagining what sexual things happen “inside the zoo.”) She trumps Imogene Coca, who, in both song and dialogue, seemed a little unhinged to the point where Owen and Oliver would never have believed that she had the funds to bail them out.
As Oscar, Peter Gallagher is a pleasant surprise. His forehead sports a forelock that droops in front all night long and nicely underlines his desperation and exasperation. He’s appropriately melodramatic when decreeing to his two minions “I close the iron door!” – a joke that later pays off wonderfully when he’s dealing with Lily and she says it word-for-word. Her quoting him brings a marvelous look of pleasure onto Oscar’s face.
Whatever was plaguing Gallagher’s voice and causing him to miss many previews has completely disappeared; he sounds strong and secure in all his songs. Would that he could have been furnished with an eleven o’clock number that would be commensurately wonderful with Lily’s “Babette.” Alas, “The Legacy” was originally a mere list song in which Oscar bequeathed his cape, fedora, mustache wax, headache pills and sixteen other items to Owen and Oliver. Amanda Green has tried to help by changing the lyric to “Because of Her,” in which Oscar realizes the impact that Lily has had on him.
Some have criticized this move, saying that Oscar should always be egocentric and unsentimental. But the score does allow for a tender moment when he and Lily sing about “Our Private World.” That sets the table for a sincere eleven o’clocker. What fails this version, however, is Larry Hochman’s too-jaunty (and faster than we’re used to) orchestration.
As Mildred, Chenoweth unobtrusively walks through the house and onto the stage, nicely underplaying the waif who’s been hired as a temp accompanist for oh-so-grand auditionee Imelda Thornton. (In the part, Paula Leggett Chase is the best at being madcap of any I’ve seen. She also gets the best William Ivey Long costume, which is really saying something, given that we’re talking about a six-time Tony-winner.)
Back to Chenoweth. Some did worry that four-foot-eleven star wouldn’t have the size for Lily. And it IS true that when she sits on Andy Karl’s lap, her feet don’t reach the floor, making her come across as a ventriloquist’s dummy. Aside from that, however, she isn’t dwarfed by many in the height department and by no one at all in the talent department.
No one doubted, however, that Chenoweth would have the voice for Coleman’s soaring operetta pastiches, and she certainly embraces every high note and trill that comes her way. That’s especially true of “Babette,” where she must decide between Maugham and Magdalene. “Babette” is so demanding on her and its dancers that Carlyle replicated what Michael Bennett did in “What Would We Do without You?” in COMPANY: the music stops so the dozen or so can catch their breaths via four loud gasps.
Many feel that that Chenoweth will finally get that Best Actress in a Musical Tony that’s been denied her in her last three times out. Don’t bet against it. Best Performance by a Tongue would easily be hers if such a prize existed. If that sounds cryptic, well, you have to be there.
And you SHOULD be there, despite the lesser production values. Let’s face that reality by citing a song in the show that Prince would direct in three-and-a-half years after this one: “Nothing’s the way that it was.”
But time has come to acknowledge that the 1977-78 Tony voters should have anointed this show and not AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ as Best Musical. Alas, when that long-ago season began, everyone fully and automatically expected greatness from Prince, Coleman, Comden and Green – Broadway’s front-liners – while not anticipating an out-of-the-blue, five-person, one-set revue full of recycled music. ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY was taken for granted to the point that many theatergoers passed it by. Don’t make their mistake.
— Peter Filichia