Theater Review: A Little Engine Keeps On the Twentieth Century Moving

By
Photo: Joan Marcus

There are a million big reasons that On the Twentieth Century, the 1978 musical by Cy Coleman and Comden and Green, shouldn’t work today: It’s profoundly silly, tonally tricky, too big for the market, and a very hard sing. Indeed, the Roundabout’s delicious revival at the American Airlines crashes intermittently into most of those problems. But there’s nevertheless one small reason — about four-foot-eleven — it works anyway: Kristin Chenoweth. She is a comic genius in a role ideally suited to her gifts.

The role is Lily Garland, née Mildred Plotka, a spoiled, insecure 1930s Hollywood star with a tough girl’s moxie and an almost erotic attachment to histrionics. She’s aboard the title luxury train, heading to New York, to make a triumphant return to Broadway, where the lead in a new Somerset Maugham play called Babette awaits her. Attempting to waylay her is Oscar Jaffee, the flamboyant producer who discovered her years earlier and with whom she had a “blazing” affair. In the wake of three expensive flops in Chicago, and with creditors snapping at his cape, he has just one last chance at theatrical resurrection: Lily. Though she now despises him, he hopes to convince her to dump Babette in favor of his own new production, and to sign a contract to that effect before the train reaches Grand Central station. To that end, he and his henchmen contrive to commandeer the drawing room next to the one in which Lily and her boytoy Bruce Granit are booked. Needless to say, there are connecting doors, as well as tap-dancing porters, would-be playwrights, a nut-job evangelist, and several spoofy flashbacks along the way.

It’s in the first of these flashbacks that we meet Chenoweth’s brilliant Lily. Actually, it’s Mildred we meet: a mousy audition accompanist in whom Oscar rightly senses starlike talent and ambition. Soon she is leading an absurd production number called “Veronique” that celebrates the beauty who saved France’s honor by refusing to bestow a smile on Otto von Bismarck. (“Veronique, she close her door / And start the Franco-Prussian War.”) It’s no surprise that Chenoweth can sing Coleman’s droll operetta pastiche: She has the perfect bright white starlight soprano for its martial cadences and coloratura roulades. Nor should it really be a surprise, though it always somehow is, to realize (after the fact) how methodically she has taken apart every beat, and even every syllable, to find what she can make funny in it. If she has immense clownish resources at her disposal — a precise and flexible voice, a wacky gestural armamentarium, a pliant imagination, and no fear of indignity — do not mistake the achievement for mere natural humor; it’s hard work creating a storyboard for every second you’re onstage. Not that she lets you see the work, even while twirling a pair of white rifles and hoisting canncan kicks. All the disassembly is done behind the scenes. Once the reassembly is done, it’s like she’s cleaned a chandelier. 

In many ways, that’s how the production, directed by Scott Ellis, works, too. Especially when it moves (the choreography is by Warren Carlyle) and sings (the music direction is by Kevin Stites) it sparkles like new, with each small detail detailed as if for the first time. But not everything works, and perhaps not everything can. The first production, directed by Harold Prince and starring Madeleine Kahn and John Cullum, came in the final days of spare-no-expenses Broadway producing, just as New York Central’s 20th Century Limited was a last gasp of luxury American railroading. The designer David Rockwell pays fitting homage to Robin Wagner’s original Art Deco mindblower of a set, and William Ivey Long similarly nods, perhaps a bit enviously, to Florence Klotz’s dripping-in-satin costumes. (In the original Playbill there was a separate credit for furs.) But both are on a tight 21st-century budget, as is Ellis, who makes do with a cast of 24 instead of 32. The limits are disastrous for the music, though; with only 13 instrumentalists, the orchestra must rely on synthesizers to fill in the string sound, with a result that’s so dry and thin it sometimes sounds Baroque. On the Seventeenth Century?

We have become used to cut corners in shows that can be reinterpreted to make such exigencies seem like interpretations. Here they cannot. On the Twentieth Century was already a throwback in 1978, not only to Howard Hawks’s 1934 movie, and the 1932 stage play that inspired it, but to the kind of tomfoolery that the young Comden and Green might have dreamed up over  postshow bull sessions at the Village Vanguard. It has their characteristic combination of erudition and impishness, which Coleman perfectly captured in an incredibly inventive score that flits from Gounod and Sullivan to vaudeville and music hall and lands on each with equal wit. But the score, like the somewhat wayward script, only coheres under certain conditions, few of which are available anymore. I’m not sure if there’s a great actor today who could sing Oscar successfully, or a great singer who could act it, but Peter Gallagher, who fell ill during previews, is only partway to achieving either goal at this point. (When he’s got a comic idea, he makes it pay, but he needs more of them.) Mary Louise Wilson, as the daft old lady first played by Imogene Coca, approaches the role with her commendable integrity, as if Mrs. Primrose were a real character — and thus misses a lot of the laughs. Andy Karl as Granit, bicep-curling Lily and flexing his mighty pecs, gets closer to the style but, like the others, is blown out of the water by his co-star. At one point, while someone else speaks, she idly twiddles at Karl’s nipples as if tuning a radio; call it upstaging, but how can you resist a lady who makes such exquisite calibrations?

You shouldn’t, and it’s a credit to Ellis’s production that he keeps everything out of her way. But, boy, do you feel it when she’s offstage: The laughometer plummets. (It doesn’t help that the production replaces the comic lyric of Oscar’s final solo, “The Legacy,” with a new, more serious one called “Because of Her,” written by Green’s daughter, Amanda.) Luckily there are still those fantastic choral numbers, and the delightful quartet of tap-dancing porters, to keep the train from derailing while Chenoweth catches her breath. 

Meanwhile, catch her. Because the next time On the Twentieth Century is revived, it may only be able to offer three porters, two doors, a keyboard in the pit — and no star like this one, for love or money. She’s irreplaceable. 

On the Twentieth Century is at the American Airlines Theatre through July 19.