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At the top of Act II in On the Twentieth Century, four tap-dancing redcap Pullman porters work overtime to funnel syncopated energy into the facile analogy of “Life is Like a Train.” But this strained farce set in 1932 aboard the luxury Chicago-to-New York express passenger service is a musical stubbornly lacking in locomotion, its steam engine spouting plumes of desperation. Co-stars Kristin Chenoweth and Peter Gallagher give it their all, delivering exactly the kind of over-the-top caricatures the antiquated material demands. However, while director Scott Ellis has a proven track record with comedy, he’s off his game in this belabored revival.
I should confess straight off that, based on the 1978 original Broadway cast album alone, I’ve never much cared for the show. The mock operetta idiom adopted by composer Cy Coleman becomes tiresome, and the melodramatic histrionics of the lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green lack the lighter-than-air touch of their work on, say, On the Town. The recording’s one bright spot is the peerless Madeline Kahn doing “Babette,” a schizophrenic second-act showstopper in which vainglorious diva Lily Garland wrestles with the choice of playing a nobly suffering Mary Magdalene or a Mayfair floozy — “depraved, debauched and déclassé.” Claiming vocal fatigue, Kahn abruptly exited the production under a cloud just two months after opening, making her understudy, Judy Kaye, a Broadway star overnight.
The beloved status accorded the show is possibly due in part to that typically opulent original Harold Prince production and the visual dazzle of Robin Wagner‘s gleaming art deco set designs. Despite there being not a single memorable tune in the lineup, the score also has its admirers, and On the Twentieth Century is considered one of the last robust examples of the traditional Broadway musical before the invasion of British behemoths that dominated the 1980s.
Comden and Green’s sources for the adaptation were the 1932 Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur play Twentieth Century, the 1934 Howard Hawks film of the same name, and Napoleon of Broadway, an unproduced play by Bruce Millholland about his experiences working for legendary theater producer-director David Belasco.
The fictional version of that Broadway impresario is Oscar Jaffee (Gallagher), a self-dramatizing egomaniac fleeing Chicago and a lot of unpaid wages for the latest in a string of flops. His scheme is to position himself in the next drawing room to his former lover and protégée, Academy Award-winning screen siren Lily (Chenoweth), whom he discovered when she was a dowdy rehearsal pianist from the Bronx named Mildred Plotka. Oscar plans to spend the 16-hour journey to New York convincing her to save him from bankruptcy by signing a contract to do his non-existent new play.
Accompanying the producer are his underpaid, overworked staff: press agent Owen O’Malley (Michael McGrath) and company manager Oliver Webb (Mark Linn-Baker). Their entertaining sidekick routines have a light touch that’s missing elsewhere. Lily is trailed by her muscle-bound leading man and pet plaything, Bruce Granit (Andy Karl in a role originated by Kevin Kline). Also on board is the unhinged religious fanatic, Letitia Peabody Primrose (Mary Louise Wilson, awkwardly uncertain in a part that demands committed lunacy), who promises to use her family pharmaceutical fortune to bankroll a Biblical stage project that Oscar hatches out of thin air. In a running gag that never quite lands, seemingly half the passengers on the train have an autobiographical play to push.
While the director can’t quite find the glue to hold it all together, the nonsensical plot and stereotypical characters are pure screwball silliness, providing the bones for some amusing comic setpieces. But watching the reliable Karl (Rocky) do bicep curls, using the diminutive Chenoweth as his barbell, is as close as the show gets to hilarious. Ellis almost invariably holds the jokes for one or two beats too long, and even scenes that start out on riotous notes tend to deflate before they’re over. The same goes for the repetitive songs. As musically arch as they are, the numbers might have had some retro appeal back in the late ‘70s. Now, in an age in which theatrical pastiche has surpassed saturation point, their charms have congealed.
Lily is a role that calls for a true coloratura, and Chenoweth’s voice remains a rare instrument, effortlessly scaling the trilling peaks while the actress scampers mischievously through every bit of campy, self-worshipping comic business in the book. Gallagher proves to be almost her match by hamming up a storm as a character perhaps even more flamboyant than Lily, even if the supposedly deep-rooted connection between them is unconvincing. (There’s no evidence of the recent vocal strain that caused him to miss a stretch of previews.) However, the performances remain wedded to a broad slap-shtick mode that gets very old very fast, much like the antique sight gag of a cartwheeling granny. And while both Lily’s and Oscar’s songs are virtuoso comedy turns, the problem is they’re seldom fun; at least not for long.
Taking its cue from Ellis’ uneven pacing, everything about this busy but rarely fresh revival is a little off the mark. Considerable expense has been poured into David Rockwell‘s elaborate sets and William Ivey Long‘s extravagant costumes, but there are few moments of real visual oomph. Perhaps the most disappointing element is Warren Carlyle‘s lackluster choreography and uninterestng tap numbers. Where’s the off-the-charts energy he brought to After Midnight?
People sitting near me were roaring with laughter, so the show’s cornball humor was obviously working for some. But while I was as ready as the next guy to be taken on a delirious musical journey, the train never leaves the station.
Cast: Kristin Chenoweth, Peter Gallagher, Andy Karl, Mark Linn-Baker, Michael McGrath, Mary Louise Wilson, Phillip Attmore, Justin Bowen, Paula Leggett Chase, Ben Crawford, Rick Faugno, Bahiyah Hibah, Drew King, Analisa Leaming, Kevin Ligon, Erica Mansfield, James Moye, Linda Mugleston, Mamie Parris, Andy Taylor, Jim Walton, Richard Riaz Yoder
Director: Scott Ellis
Book & lyrics: Betty Comden, Adolph Green, based on plays by Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur and Bruce Millholland
Music: Cy Coleman
Set designer: David Rockwell
Lighting designer: Donald Holder
Costume designer: William Ivey Long
Sound designer: Jon Weston
Orchestrations: Larry Hochman
Music director: Kevin Stites
Choreographer: Warren Carlyle
Executive producer: Sydney Beers
Presented by Roundabout Theatre Company
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