On the Twentieth Century


Sometimes, there's a revival of a show because the moment is absolutely right—the stars (i.e., constellations, not celebs) align, the politics of the day are right and the theatre-going audience is ripe for a particular message (think: the 2009 revival of Hair). Sometimes, there's a revival because anything goes (think: the 2011 revival of Anything Goes). This splendid revival of On the 20th Century, the first-ever Broadway revival of the musical, is the anything goes kind: too much fun to pass up.

Based on plays by Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur and Bruce Millholland, this zany musical comedy comes courtesy of book writers and lyricists Betty Comden + Adolph Green (On the Town) and composer Cy Coleman (Sweet Charity), with additional material by Marco Pannette and Green's daughter, lyricist Amanda (Hands on a Hardbody).

The action is set on a train (the Twentieth Century, to be exact), which is chugging along from Chicago to New York. Aboard is theatre producer Oscar Jaffee (usually Peter Gallagher; I saw understudy James Moye), who is heading back to New York after his latest show flopped in Chicago. Looking to get back in the game, he's hoping to persuade his one-time leading lady—both on and off stage—Lily Garland (Kristin Chenoweth) to sign up for another production. Jaffee's stooges, Oliver and Owen (Mark Linn-Baker and Michael McGrath, respectively) are around to help stir the pot, as are Lily's new leading man, the hunky and dim Bruce Granit (Andy Karl), and the certifiable Letitia Peabody Primrose (Mary Louise Wilson). It might sound like a lot of people to keep track of (did I mention the hard working ensemble), but who cares?

The silly plot is, well, silly. A throwback even when it was first produced in 1978, On the Twentieth Century isn't too concerned with character development or intricate plot details. Instead, it's a classic screwball comedy full of fun song and dance numbers. (Direction is by Scott Ellis (The Mystery of Edwin Drood, You Can't Take It With You) and choreography is by Tony winner Warren Carlyle (After Midnight).) The show is meant to show off the talents of its cast (check) to the delight of a fully entertained audience (check).

Tony nominee Andy Karl (Rocky) plays the boy toy well, holding nothing back in his comedic bits. (And his guns, maybe a holdover from playing a pugilist, will make you grateful for the second amendment.) When I saw the show, early in previews, Gallagher was out with a sinus infection. I've never seen him on stage, but I am fairly certain I didn't miss anything, thanks to James Moye's terrific performance. His Oscar is a winning mix of charm, bravado and good humor, a great match for Lily's antics.

Lily is, of course, the quintessential performer, and stepping into the role originated by Madeline Kahn is our very own national treasure, Kristin Chenoweth. The Tony Award winner has a virtuosic voice, and comedy chops to rival the greats like Kahn, Gilda Radner and Amy Poehler. What a treat it is to watch her, and the entire company, on stage in this fun, fluffy crowd-pleasing musical.

Additional notes:
  • Costumes are by William Ivey Long, and hair and wig design is by Paul Huntley. Look for some impressive quick changes.
  • David Rockwell designed the continually in motion set, which is complemented by Donald Holder's lighting design.
  • Orchestrations are by Larry Hochman. 

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