April 8, 2015

Onboard With "On the Twentieth Century"

“They might as well give the Tony to her right now,” my husband K said as we walked out of the American Airlines Theatre after seeing Kristin Chenoweth in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of On the Twentieth Century.

There are still nine big musicals opening before the Tony nominations are announced on April 28 but K may be right. Cause Chenoweth is so great and the role fits her so perfectly that you’d think Cy Coleman, Betty Comden and Adolph Green had come back from the dead to tailor it to her talents.

They didn’t of course (although click here to read an interview with Chenoweth in which she talks about how Comden and Green once told her she should do the show). On the Twentieth Century was created back in 1978 as a showcase for the great Madeline Kahn and as an homage to the roots of musical theater.

Coleman’s music is a mix of operetta and show tunes in the style of Sigmund Romberg and Victor Herbert. Comden and Green’s book is an adaptation of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s 1932 farce of the same name. With the exception of a few flashbacks, all the action takes place on the legendary passenger train the 20th Century Limited as it makes its 16-hour journey from Chicago to New York.

The show's main passengers are the flamboyant but bankrupt producer Oscar Jaffe, whose latest show bombed so badly that he had to sneak out of town without paying the actors, and Lily Garland, the mercurial movie actress and Jaffe’s former lover and protégée, whom he hopes will save his career by agreeing to star in a musical based on, of all things, the Mary Magdalene story.

Also onboard are Jaffe’s loyal press agent and business manager, a rival producer, a philandering congressman and his paramour, an eccentric evangelist and Lily’s current lover, a beefy boneheaded movie star named Bruce Granit. Naturally, much silliness ensues.

Now to be truthful, only some of it tickled me. Comden and Green, even when working from someone else’s material, are less book writers than sketch writers. And they have a weakness for badabing-badaboom-style jokes, whose success depends less on what’s being said than on how it’s staged.

Luckily, director Scott Ellis, aided by Warren Carlyle’s zippy choreography (especially the numbers with a quartet of Pullman porters) keeps things moving along. Even luckier, he’s packed his cast with pros who know how to bring the funny. 

Peter Gallagher is goofily—and winningly—grandiose as Oscar (click here for a Q&A with him).  Mark Linn-Baker and Michael McGrath are comic delights as his put-upon lieutenants. And Andy Karl puts the muscles he developed for the ill-fated Rocky—and his own oddball charmto great use as Bruce Granit.

But Chenoweth is the little engine that truly drives this show—and the reason I succumbed to it. The part of Lily is beond demanding. It calls for a brilliant comedienne who’s adept at slapstick and an accomplished singer who can hit high C’s with crystalline clarity. 

Kahn famously left the original production after two months, pleading exhaustion. I don’t know how Chenoweth isn’t similarly wiped out by the end of each night’s performance in this one. 

A gifted clown, Chinoweth zips her tiny body around the stage, performing one inspired bit after another and using her distinctive helium-inflected speaking voice to give an extra bounce to even the flattest lines. A trained opera singer, she also hits every wickedly high note that Coleman devised and filigrees the rest.

I had been thinking this might finally be the year that Kelli O’Hara, who opens in The King and I next week, might take home the Tony. Or that Chita Rivera, finally getting the chance to bring Kander & Ebb's The Visit to Broadway, might get it. And one of them (or someone else) still might. But, as K says, Chenoweth is going to be very tough to beat.

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