Friday, July 24, 2015

Theater Review: ‘On the 20th Century,’ From the Roundabout Theatre Co.

When Cabaret, a veritable cash cow since 1998, came to an end with its latest Alan Cumming star turn in late March, the Roundabout Theatre Company faced the challenge of finding a suitable replacement. The problem was not unlike the difficulty the New York Yankees have had in filling the shoes of Derek Jeter this year: You can’t hope for another once-in-a-generation bonanza, just a serviceable surrogate.

In the case of a Roundabout musical, you hope for a credible success, financially and critically (110 in the Shade, starring Audra McDonald) rather than an all-around embarrassment (Bye, Bye Birdie, starring John Stamos and Gina Gershon).

Two musicals mounted by the company so far in 2015—Into the Woods and On the Twentieth Century—could hardly have differed more in their tone or production values. Yet each managed to be hugely enjoyable.

Roundabout might not have a long-running musical hit on its hands, but the run for each show was extended, providing much-needed box-office relief to the nonprofit theater troupe.

I did not get a chance to review the marvelous stripped-down version of Into the Woods. I don’t want the same unfortunate thing to happen with On the Twentieth Century, so I am writing about it now on the heels of its final performance on Sunday.

The unfortunate thing might be that more people may have seen the 1934 film comedy Twentieth Century instead of the 1978 musical. I say that with no disrespect for the Howard Hawks movie, which not only represented one of  John Barrymore’s screen performances but launched the short but lustrous career of Carole Lombard as one of the queens of the screwball comedy genre. 

It’s just that the 1978 musical, featuring an incredible array of talent—director Harold Prince, composer Cy Coleman, lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and stars John Cullum, Madeline Kahn, and Kevin Kline—was, by common agreement, one of the zestiest entries in musical theater history—yet had not been revived on the Great White Way since its original production. (Contrast that with Gypsy and Fiddler on the Roof, which have been recycled several times already.)

Maybe the problem all along was simply the outsized nature of the material: egomaniacal Broadway producer Oscar Jaffee, having made Lily Garland a star and his lover, has parted ways with her, personally and professionally. But now, after she has become an even bigger star in Hollywood while he has endured four straight flops, he desperately needs her again for his next show. 

For her part, Lily has unfinished business with him, too: Her rage at him is just another indication of how much he had made her love him to begin with.

Oscar, then, is on a mission: to convince Lily, by hook or by crook (this being Oscar, it’ll be mostly crook), while the two are on the Chicago-to-New York supertrain Twentieth Century, to star in this make-or-break play for him.

The musical has some wonderfully accomplished supporting actors, including Mark Linn-Baker as Oscar’s business manager, Michael McGrath as his press agent, Mary Louise Wilson as the religious fanatic who seems ready to bankroll his comeback, and Andy Karl as Lily’s Hollywood boy toy. But this particular production rises and falls on its two leads. I can definitively state that, at least in Kristin Chenoweth’s case, the show stood sturdily on her narrow shoulders.

I first saw Ms. Chenoweth in the Roundabout revival of the 1969 Burt Bacharach-Hal David musical, Promises, Promises. (See my review here.) Despite my astonishment that such a powerful voice could come from such a tiny body, as well as my general admiration for the actress’ talent, it seemed clear that her character in that show, exploited office girl Fran Kubelik, was too small for her.

In her first scene in On the Twentieth Century, Ms. Chenoweth disposed of that character type handily and hilariously. As mousy Mildred Plotka, frustrated by the substandard performance of the actress she’s accompanying on piano, she bursts into glorious song to show how the song should really be done. Instead of firing her, as the irate star wants, producer Oscar Jaffee puts her in the coveted role, glams her up, and transforms her into name-above-the-title Lily Garland.

That delightful comic timing came in a package that included what Ms. Chenoweth has always been known for: a vocal instrument that can rise to any challenges. Those demands wore down the original Lily Garland of the 1978 musical, Madeleine Kahn, who left that production still early in its run because of too many absences occasioned by vocal stress.  

The show, I attended, a preview, was not, in certain ways, what most theatergoers saw in subsequent performances. For one thing, Peter Gallagher—signed as Jaffee—had to miss several performances because of a nasty sinus infection—but his understudy, James Moye, filled in capably, including when I saw him. 

For another, not all the kinks of this enormously high-tech show had been worked out. At a key point in the second act, the show had to stop for several minutes because the computer system that synchronized set changes had unaccountably frozen. (When the musical resumed, it picked up about a minute before it had unceremoniously stopped—leading Ms. Chenoweth to yell coyly to the audience, “I feel like I’ve been through this before!”)

The director responsible for this fast, funny show, Scott Ellis, can now list this among his long streak of triumphs for the Roundabout (The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Harvey, Twelve Angry Men, The Rainmaker, and Company).  Here’s hoping that he’ll bring his magic touch to another unjustly neglected gem soon.

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