‘On the 20th Century’ – Lots of Plusses BUT…..

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Photo by Joan Marcus
Photo by Joan Marcus

By Karen Isaacs

Let me count all the excellent elements of  On the Twentieth Century which is being revived by the Roundabout Theater Company.

A gorgeous set designed by David Rockwell that captures the beauty of the art deco period.  Elegant 1930s costumes designed by William Ivey Long.  Terrific lighting by Donald Holder and sound design by Jon Weston.  Plus great choreography by Warren Carlyle.

Photo by Joan Marcus
Photo by Joan Marcus

Let’s add in a cast that seems made in heaven:  Kristin Chenoweth, Peter Gallagher, Andy Karl, Mark-Linn Baker, Michael McGrath and Mary Louise Wilson — all multiple award winners and nominees.

Plus it is based on the Broadway hit play, 20th Century by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur that Roundabout revived 11 years ago.  Who can forget the film version that starred John Barrymore and Carole Lombard?  It is one of the classic Hollywood screwball comedies. The original Broadway musical with book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and music by Cy Coleman won numerous awards.

Yet, there is a BUT coming.  Despite everything it has going for it, this production of On the Twentieth Century while enjoyable, just misses.  It seems as though almost everyone in the cast is trying too hard.  Laurence Olivier once said that you should never let an audience see you sweat and by that I think he meant let them see you try too hard.  This cast tries too hard.

With a screwball comedy or farce it must be frantic and the characters must at times be desperate but the it should be frantic, light and fun.

Peter Gallagher, Michael McGrath, Mark-Linn Baker. Photo by Joan Marcus
Peter Gallagher, Michael McGrath, Mark-Linn Baker. Photo by Joan Marcus

In case you don’t remember any of the previous versions of the play, or the musical which opened in 1978 (and won Tony awards for John Cullum, Kevin Kline, best book and score as well as nominations for Hal Prince, Madeline Kahn and Imogene Coca) the show is set on the train from Chicago to New York called the 20th Century.  On board is the theatrical producer Oscar Jaffe (Peter Gallagher) who has had a string of flops and is desperate for money and a hit.  With him are his loyal press agent (Michael McGrath) and accountant (Mark-Linn Baker).  Boarding the train is the Hollywood star Lily Garland (Kristin Chenoweth) and her leading man and lover Bruce Granit (Andy Karl).  Oscar had discovered Garland, changed her name and made her star while also having a romantic relationship with her.

Oscar Jaffe has a plan:  get Garland to agree to star in a play which will reunite them and return him to theatrical and financial security.

Mixed into the plot are Jaffe’s former protégé who is now a producer planning a Broadway production for Garland, various passengers who have written plays that they want Jaffe to read and Letitia Peabody Primrose (Mary Louise Wilson) an elderly woman who goes around the train slapping religious stickers on everything and everyone. But she is “loaded” having founded a very successful patent medicine company.

Andy Karl and Kristin Chenoweth. Photo by Joan Marcus
Andy Karl and Kristin Chenoweth. Photo by Joan Marcus

You can predict what will happen — deception, lies, a lot of slamming doors — did I mention that Jaffe has arranged to have the stateroom next to Garland? — desperation.  But you also know there will be a happy ending.

Chenoweth as the spoiled and bossy Garland is in fine voice.  Composer Cy Coleman has written a lot of high notes in this somewhat operetta role and Chenoweth hits them all.  While she should be spoiled and demanding, we should not totally dislike her but at times we do.

Peter Gallagher plays Oscar Jaffe as the suave, dashing and romantic hero who leaps from desperation to exultation in the span of seconds.  He is THEATRICAL. Yet Gallagher does let us see the man beneath the manic and egotistical personality.

Photo by Joan Marcus
Photo by Joan Marcus

Both Mark-Linn Baker and Michael McGrath mine the humor in their characters. They clean up Oscar’s messes and support him. Mary Louise Wilson has a terrific number “Repent” in the first act. Wilson again seems to be one of the few characters in this show who is really having a good time.  Andy Karl as Bruce Granit does all he can with the role of the self-loving, little talented, overly muscled movie star and Garland’s lover. He also has some of the best physical comedy scenes.

Any review of this production must mention “the porters” –Rick Faugno, Richard Riaz Yoder, Phillip Attmore and Drew King — who open both acts with terrific tap numbers.  (They also appear elsewhere).  The sheer exuberance of their dancing is infectious.  Yet, while they are one of the highlights of the show, it also indicates a problem.  They are not characters in the show, they don’t affect the plot, they just dance magnificently.

I haven’t mention director Scott Ellis; that’s because I think he is part of the problem.  On the Twentieth Century is not a great musical BUT I have seen the show before and enjoyed it more than I did in this production.  Ellis focused on production values and pace, but he failed to develop chemistry between Garland and Jaffe, he let Andy Karl become a caricature of the muscle-bound movie star; and in the end, left us feeling still hungry.

On the Twentieth Century is at the American Airlines Theater on W. 42nd Street. For tickets contact Roundabout Theatre


Photo by Joan Marcus
Photo by Joan Marcus


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