Composer Cy Coleman and lyricists and book writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s “On the Twentieth Century”—doubly a period piece, as the multiple Tony® Award-winning musical dates from 1978 and its setting and the Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur, and Bruce Millholland plays that it’s based on, not to mention the Howard Hawks film with Carole Lombard and John Barrymore, all come from the ’30s—is enjoying a first-ever, overdue, and more-than-welcome Broadway revival, thanks to the Roundabout Theatre Company. It delights the ear, thanks to star Kristin Chenoweth—who’s charming and riveting and sings coloratura and high notes—and her colleagues, and dazzles the eye, courtesy of a team helmed by Artistic and Stage Director Scott Ellis, and I can’t remember when I last spent so much of a performance smiling. “On the Twentieth Century” opened at the American Airlines Theatre on 42nd Street on March 15 and is slated for a limited run, scheduled to end on July 5, but don’t be surprised if it’s extended.
This is theater about theater and its principals are actress and star Lily Garland (Chenoweth) and her formidable foil, impresario and director Oscar Jaffee (Peter Gallagher), Pygmalion to her Galatea, Svengali to her Trilby, the tyrant who discovered her, her nemesis, and her one true love. They tower, they’re over-the-top, and they’re so much more alike than either of them realizes. Chenoweth patters, plays screwball comedy, and sings the hell out of the florid part, written for Madeline Kahn, but soon taken over by Judy Kaye, and Gallagher, ranting, concocting grandiose schemes, and wheedling, holds his own opposite her, in the role created by John Cullum. Also featured, and cutting a striking comic figure as Letitia Peabody Primrose, a would-be patron of the arts, with a religious mission and more than a few screws loose, is Mary Louise Wilson, succeeding Imogene Coca, who portrayed her in ’78. Kudos go as well to Mark Linn-Baker and Michael McGrath, as Oliver Webb and Owen O’Malley, Jaffee’s long-suffering assistants, and to Andy Karl as Bruce Granit, Garland’s boy-toy.
The look of David Rockwell’s set, lit by Donald Holder, and complemented by costumes by William Ivey Long, is shiny and ornamented Deco from the get-go, and for most of the show, we’re on a train, the Twentieth Century Limited from Chicago to New York, and from the steam that immediately issues from the footlights to the sound of Coleman’s score and the railroad rhythms that Music Director Kevin Stites elicits from his orchestra to the quartet of energetic porters, Rick Faugno, Richard Riaz Yoder, Phillip Attmore, and Drew King, guided by Ellis and choreographer Warren Carlyle, and as crisply precise as the train for which they’re attendants, to the grand train stations at either end of the journey, we never forget where we are.
Ellis, Carlyle, and company’s production numbers, from the title song in the station and on board the train, and “Veronique,” with its Arc de Triomphe, Can-Can dancers, and tricolores, to the grand finale, all in white, are lavish and nothing less than brilliant, as are the complex ensembles “Sign Lily Sign” and “She’s a Nut,” coordinated by Stites. Chenoweth and Gallagher give us romance in “Our Private World” and spar memorably in “I’ve Got It All” and elsewhere. Wilson makes a meal of the louche “Repent.” Jon Weston designed the sound and the amplification is remarkably unobtrusive.
Some lines of music and dialogue have been clipped for this revival and there are new lyrics, by Amanda Green, Adolph Green’s daughter, for Jaffee’s 11 o’clock—actually 10:15—number, once called “Legacy” and now “Because of Her,” and concerning what impresario and diva have meant to each other, which works, rather than about his memorabilia.
, telephone 212/719-1300, or come to the box office at 227 West 42nd Street for tickets and information. Performances are Tuesday to Saturday evenings at 8 p.m. and Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m.