note: entire contents copyright 2003 by Beverly Creasey
The witty, beautiful-to-look-at musical “On the 20th Century” showcases the Vokes esprit at its best. The theater seems to attract a family of loyalists who operate like a repertory ensemble, making it unusual among local community theaters where gypsy actors and tech people come and go. The results in the current production are rewarding.
“On the 20th Century” takes place on the train called the 20th Century, which once transported passengers between Chicago and New York in luxury. With music by Cy Coleman and book and lyrics by Broadway legends Betty Comden and Adolph Green, the 1970s show does a good job of recapturing the playful, escapist kind of entertainment that was common in the otherwise grim 1930s.
Eccentric impresario Oscar Jaffee (David Berti), having years ago turned mousy substitute accompanist Mildred into stage star Lily Garland (Nikki Boxer, a young Glenn Close), has fallen on hard times and hatches a plan to get her back from the movies. The situation is dire. Jaffee has had several theatrical flops, owes a ton of money and must nab Lily before she falls into the clutches of his more successful rival, Max Jacobs (Bill Spera). Jaffee’s two henchmen, who are reminiscent of the Brush-Up-Your-Shakespeare thugs in “Kiss Me Kate” (Richard Carey and David Wood), are ordered to reserve a train suite adjacent to the room Lily will occupy with her beau (Brian Turner). The fireworks begin.
Comden and Green have a knack for that “O, you kid!” period, and many of their lines are smart and sassy or corny in a 1930s way. When Jaffee’s hard-drinking press agent (Carey as Owen O’Malley) assumes that Lily is on the train to rejoin the team, he throws away his flask and cries, “I can walk without crutches.” Finding himself in error, he reverses abruptly: “At times like these, I always like to face reality and drink myself into a well-earned stupor.”
Besides including the typically 1930s comic drunk, the writers offer numerous other allusions to the period. Consider the lyric, “Veronique she close the door and start the Franco-Prussian War.” Or this mid-Depression line, “Stick around, Mr. Money, cause when you’re here, we eat.,” a musical response to an offer from a mysterious heiress (Kimberly McClure) to fund Jaffee’s new show. And then there’s the quintessential Comden-Green number in which a suicidal Jaffee bequeaths his worldly possessions: “My set of Theodore Dreiser, my portrait of the Kaiser.”
The set (by Stephen McGonagle) and the lights (by D [Editor: D has no period] Schweppe) are magnificent characters in themselves. McGonagle’s rendering of the luxurious interior of the train on the tiny Vokes stage is nothing short of extraordinary. An airy lounge accommodates crowds of well-healed passengers, staterooms float in and out, the engine appears about to crush the audience. The challenge for Schweppe was that the lighting must change smoothly along with rapid-fire scene changes. Fortunately, he worked on the original Broadway show and knew what he was up against.
With an offstage chorus and orchestra and a large cast that maintained a fast pace, there were only a few ragged moments. The finale “Life Is Like a Train,” for example, seemed unnecessary after a thoroughly satisfying ending to the previous scene. Although none of the show’s songs is famous, all work well in the context of the plot. Most numbers are humorous, but a Lily-Oscar duet, “Our Private World,” is a lovely, pensive ballad.
Kathy Lague, hilariously auditioning with a song called “Indian Maiden’s Lament,” deserves special mention, as do the various characters who serenade Jaffee with “I Have Written a Play.” The conductor (Gordon Russell) boasts he wrote a play called “Life on a Train”; the doctor (Cheryl Salatino) wrote “Life in a Metropolitan Hospital”; and the politician (Ken Hirschkind) is pushing his script “Life on the Hog Market Committee.” No wonder Jaffee has trouble finding good plays! When he refreshes his memory of the Mary Magdalene story to create a vehicle for Lily, he looks up from the Bible to complain that no one writes like that anymore.
The music direction was by Marcus Hauck and the choreography by Karen Burns. Ann Carnaby designed the period costumes; Bill Triessl created train chuffing, whistles and other evocative sound effects; and Jean Williams designed hair and make-up that could stand up to numerous changes. Charmingly directed by the team of Donnie Baillargeon and Doug Sanders and produced by Anne Damon, “On the 20th Century” lights up the Vokes stage through Nov. 22. Some performances are sold out. For further information, call (508) 358-4034.