On the Twentieth Century is an odd duck of a musical. It opened on Broadway in 1978, which was a sparse year for quality work. It won Cy Coleman (Sweet Charity), and the team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green (On the Town) Tony™ Awards for Book and Score pretty much by default. It’s competition was a revue, a dance show, and a couple of musicals based on stories collected from real people. Directed by Harold Prince in his heyday, the show nevertheless lost the Best Director nod (to Bob Fosse, for Dancin’) and the Best Musical award (to Ain’t Misbehavin’ – apparently, the dropped ending “g” was in style then).
The show had a somewhat troubled history as well: its star, Madeline Kahn, quit the show two months into its run and understudy Judy Kaye took over and became a Broadway star. And, what everyone talked about was the scenic design, by Robin Wagner, a luxury train that appeared to be in motion on stage.
It has only been revived once on Broadway (recently, for a limited run), so Cygnet Theatre’s current production presents an opportunity to see a second rank work from great Broadway talent.
Speaking of talent, there’s a lot of it on display on the Cygnet stage. I only wish that the good work had come together more solidly than it had the night I saw it.
The musical is based on Twentieth Century, a Depression-era comedy by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. At a time when much of the country was in a situation ranging from abject poverty to struggling to make ends meet, send-ups of crazy rich people were all the vogue. The train named the Twentieth Century ran between Chicago and New York, traversing the shores of the Great Lakes and running through upstate New York before making its way down the Hudson River Valley to Grand Central Station. It was a scenic overnight trip, and catered to travelers who wanted a luxury experience.
On this particular run, Broadway producer Oscar Jaffe (Sean Murray) has booked a compartment adjoining film star and former lover Lily Garland (Eileen Bowman) in hopes of putting together a project that would lure her not only to star, but invest some of her film wealth, redeem Oscar from a series of flops, and, just maybe, rekindle their relationship. Sounds like a tall order – and it turns out to be so.
[Sidebar comment: The opening of the show parallels the opening of The Producers. Of course, Mel Brooks famously stole from everyone, so this is not surprising. I was kind of hoping to see a group of little old ladies in walkers come dancing through, but it was not to be.]
Lily is traveling with a suitor, a male ingenue named Bruce (Michael Cusimano), which complicates matters. Also complicating matters is a woman named Letitia Primrose (Melinda Gilb) who has been going around the train plastering any available space with religious stickers. And, there are a whole range of travelers who just happen to have written plays based on their own lives that they eagerly press on Oscar. Standing guard are Oscar’s staff members (Melissa Fernandes and Steve Gunderson), who smooth things over the best they can and who tolerate Oscar firing them regularly.
Act 1 takes a while to get going. By Act 2 the “madcap” plot kicks in and things become funnier, both script-wise, and physically. Mr. Cusimano, for example, has a pretty wonderful slapstick scene involving opening and slamming doors that is well timed and played by all concerned.
But, in this kind of production, where a lot of little things add up to a big whole, someone needs to steal the show. In the original, it was Imogene Coca as mad Letitia. In the recent revival, it was the dancing Porters. Lord knows, Ms. Gilb tries to steal this one – and almost succeeds. The porters don’t have a chance, though, despite being given choreography by David Brannen that suits their ability to execute – it’s just not exciting enough for a steal. Ms. Fernandes, who has the capacity to steal anything she’s in, is saddled with another role written originally for a man to play (she did something similar in New Village Arts’ production of Big River). A definite second banana, she provides solid support. Ms. Bowman can also steal anything she’s in, but her character needs to be the one around which all the conflict swirls.
Lacking anyone else, Mr. Murray tries to steal it himself. Big mistake. Chewing the scenery is part of his character, but as he also directed, he lacks guidance about how to chew lightly and not let overwhelm everyone else.
Sean Fanning can’t do a Robin Wagner with his scenic design, but he gets a train onto the Cygnet stage that works as well as possible (though, where did projection designer Blake McCarty get the shot of a period-era train rumbling through Southern Colorado, rather than the shore of the Great Lakes). Jeanne Reith is the queen of these sorts of period costumes, and she works her magic here as well. They’re lit nicely by Chris Rynne. Dylan Nielsen’s sound design still seemed under construction the night I experienced it, making Terry O’Donnell’s six-piece band way too prominent and forcing the singers to force their singing.
Cygnet gives its spring musical a good, long, run, so perhaps some of these problems will straighten themselves out. But, I do think it was a mistake for the very talented Mr. Murray to take on both directing and playing the lead in a big, complicated, show without a lot of established performance practice to guide everyone else.