From the moment the orchestra sounds the first note, you know you’re in for an old-fashioned musical – not a creaky Edvard Grieg operetta like Song of Norway but a real book show with fleshed –out characters, tunes you can hum, and laughs that reverberate in your belly. On the Twentieth Century is one of those musicals. It opened on Broadway in 1978 and garnered nine Tony Award nominations, winning five for best scenic design (Robin Wagner), best book (Betty Comden and Adolph Green), best score (Cy Coleman), best actor (John Cullum) and best supporting actor for a dashing newcomer named Kevin Kline.
Last night, this locomotive of a show chugged into the Freud Playhouse in a production by LA REPRISE! that retains the freshness of the original. Starring Broadway talents Bob Gunton (Evita) and Carolee Carmello (Parade), On the Twentieth Century is part operetta, part farce, part screwball comedy and, a total delight.
Based on the 1934 Howard Hawks film Twentieth Century, starring John Barrymore and Carole Lombard, the musical is set aboard the legendary luxury train that carried the elite from Chicago to New York City. One of the celebrity passengers, producer/director Oscar Jaffe (Gunton), is on the skids after four flops in a row; his theater is being foreclosed upon and his reputation has all the shine of a muddy spoon. Only one person can save Jaffe from ruin: the movie star Lily Garland (Carmello), who happens to be traveling in the suite next door. Unfortunately, Ms. Garland, whom Jaffe discovered many years earlier and with who she was romantically involved, now abhors her ex-Svengali for his jealousy of her fame. The desperate ham and the queen of Hollywood square off in a battle of wills: Can he get her signature on a contract? Can she get this cretinous lout out of her life?
Comden and the late Green, responsible for the scripts and/or lyrics of some of the best Broadway and Hollywood musicals (Singin’ In the Rain, On the Town) infuse On the Twentieth Century with a frothy air. When Lily shoots down Oscar’s advances she shouts, “You’re living in a flashback.” Later, when Oscar feigns suicide, he laments, “I am much too good a showman to dwindle like a snowman melting down one sunny day.”
The Coleman score is one of his cleverest. During the overture, he implies the motion of a train with his rhythms and instrumentation. Elsewhere, he simulates chase music of the sort that used to accompany Mack Sennett’s silent comedies. When On the twentieth Century opened, critics noted the influence of Kurt Weill; I also hear the troubadour tunes of Jacques Brel at times, particularly in the French war tune “Veronique.” Coleman spoofs the pitter-patter rhythm of screwball comedies in his melodies, especially in the fast paced “She’s a Nut” and “I’ve Got It All.” The “Sign, Lily, Sign” ensemble deftly meds layers of different melodies sung by the various cast members. The orchestra under Gerald Sternbach’s baton crisply enunciates the music.
The production boasts a stellar cast. Gunton, with his droopy eyes, unkempt gray hair, thick mustache and raised eyebrows, is Barrymore reborn. Emoting grandly, he plays Oscar as a comic clown; his entrance a mad scramble onto the moving train through a window, demonstrates that dead-on interpretation right off. Carmello, an accomplished singer-actress, is stunning as Lily, handling the character’s comic moments and passionate soliloquies with equal conviction.
The rest of the fine cast – including Damon Kirsche, Mimi Hines, Dan Butler, and Robert Picardo – works seamlessly as an ensemble. One standout is Mary Vanarsdel in a small part as a prima donna auditioning during a flashback. With her pained expressions and a silent film stare, she gives us an idea of what Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond might have looked like two weeks after dispatching Joe Gillis.
Television director David Lee packs the show like a silent comedy with voices. Adept at farce from his Frasier days, he knows just how to utilize pantomime and how to stir the audience. With the help of scenic designer Bradley Kaye and lighting designer Tom Ruzika, Lee makes the train seem to be really moving throughout the show; flickering lights, rotating facades, miniatures, and a spotlight coming toward the audience all ad to the production’s kinetic energy.
The creators of On the Twentieth Century forged a fantasy version of the 1930s, on oblivious to the Great Depression and the pending World War. The show mixes the frivolity and feisty humor of ‘30s films into an intoxicating cocktail; audiences will relish this tune-filled evening.