Theatre Mirror Reviews - "On the Twentieth Century"

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Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Carl A. Rossi


book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green
music by Cy Coleman
based on a play by Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur and Bruce Milholland
direction and musical staging by Tony McLean
special tap choreography by Cyrus Brooks
musical direction by Michael Joseph

Actor … Ryan Dunn
Owen O’Malley … Paul Farwell
Oliver Webb … William Hartery
Porter Authority … Jeff Mahoney
Porter Bello … Russell Ferguson
Porter Vallarta … Joe Gonzales
Porter Cole … Brian De Lorenzo
Porter Fino … Shaquan Reed
Porter House … Andy McLeavey
Porter Square … Michael Letch
Congressman Lockwood … Chip Phillips
Conductor Flanagan … John King
Letitia Peabody Primrose … Cheryl McMahon
Anita … Aimee Doherty
Oscar Jaffe … George Dvorsky
Max Jacobs … Bob De Vivo
Imelda … Megan Tillman
Maxwell Finch … Steve Shannon
Lily Garland … Alice Ripley
Bruce Granit … Andrew Giordano
Agnes … Melanie May
Dr. Johnson … Deb Poppel

Jaclyn Campbell; Aimee Doherty; Jackie Duffy; Ryan Dunn;
Karen Fanale; Frank Gayton; Paul Giragos; Kathy Keefe;
Amanda Hancock; Catherine Lee; Naomi Gurt Lind; Stephanie Mann;
Melanie May; Alison Murphy; Rene Lewis Pfister; Chip Philips;
Deb Poppel; Don Ringuette; Andrew Ryker; Steve Shannon;
Jesse Strachman; Erin Tchoukaleff; Dawn Tucker; Jennifer Walker

Reed 1 … Karen Robbins
Reed 2 … Maeve Lien
Reed 3 … Andrea Bonsignore
Reed 4 … Dave Cross
Reed 5 … Mark Margolies
Trumpet 1 … Paul Perfetti
Trumpet 2 … Robbie LaPage
Horn 1 … Dirk Hillyer
Horn 2 … Lisa Redpath
Trombone 1 … Anthony Hudson
Trombone 2 … James Monoghan
Violin 1 … Stanley Silverman
Violin 2 … Yuan Mei Xing
Violin 3 … Peter Stickel
Violin 4 … Julia Hunter
Viola … Kathy Kalogeras
Cello … Matt Pierce
Bass … Matt Ambrose
Harp … Deborah Feld Fabisiewicz
Percussion … Scott Brenner
Keyboard … Beth Stafford

Overture Productions’ concert of ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY recently completed a three-performance run at the Majestic Theatre; it was excellent entertainment worthy of a full-scale production though it did quite nicely without one. This 1978 musical, considered the last of the Golden Age ones, is based on Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s comedy TWENTIETH CENTURY though the best-known version is the 1934 film adaptation starring John Barrymore and Carole Lombard --- all three deal with the love-hate battle between fading Broadway impresario Oscar Jaffee and his former protégé/mistress Lily Garland, now a Star in her own right. The arrogant, overbearing Oscar wants Lily back, personally as well as professionally; Lily, with a new lover and a rival producer in her court, thinks otherwise. Oscar pursues Lily on a Twentieth Century train hurtling from Chicago to New York; she does her best to evade and outwit him but in the end…. Apart from the opening number and a flashback scene, Betty Comden and Adolph Green keep everything onboard the train and change a fanatical evangelist from male to female. Their libretto is pure American wisecrack but blends amazingly well with Cy Coleman’s distinctly continental score (think of Rossini bumping into Romberg while picking Gilbert & Sullivan’s pockets). The songs are tightly bound to the plotline, substituting for the rapid-fire dialogue of the play and film, so listening to the score alone may sound ho-hum to some but ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY is great fun, onstage -- a musical comedy that is also a comedy musical.

I still have fond memories of the Vokes Players’ production that included a train rushing at you, head on, Nikki Boxer’s funny-fizzy Lily Garland and some brilliant slapstick; Overtures’ ensemble, holding book, wasn’t as nimble but gave well-shaded readings and turned ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY into a pop cantata if not out-and-out comic opera. Director Tony McLean and choreographer Cyrus Brooks kept the large-scale ensemble ever flowing, using them as corridors for the leads to slink and stalk through; train destinations were announced by the conductor (the delightful John King) tap-dancing backwards across the stage to simulate the train’s forward motion; Mr. King and seven porters even became the train itself with their fancy footwork (how joyous to hear the sound of taps, again). The choruses performed as if once they had bitten into the score they couldn’t get enough of it --- ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY is so teaming with screwball life that many of them got to do numerous bits and turns and there were familar faces in the ranks who, if singled out, would slight the lesser-knowns for they all performed as One.

George Dvorsky’s Oscar Jaffee, though handsome and handsomely sung, was a collection of opera hat, opera cape and gas-light villainy and akin to his equally conniving Fred Grahame in North Shore’s KISS ME, KATE; as Mr. Dvorsky kept KATE’s leading lady at a smiling distance, so he did with Alice Ripley’s Lily Garland (David Berti, the Vokes’ Oscar, took evident delight in Ms. Boxer’s company). It is not uncommon for a leading lady to steal her own show and Ms. Ripley did so from her first entrance in a trench-coat through set piece after demanding set piece be it solo, duet or ensemble and her soprano, going from growl to champagne, was endlessly clever. Her performance, however, did not eclipse Ms. Boxer’s own achievement and I don’t see why two memorable takes on the same role cannot co-exist in recollection --- they will in mine.

Among the supporting delights were Paul Farwell’s Owen O’Malley, another one of his endearing mugs, Bob De Vivo’s dapper, snappy Max Jacobs (should anyone care to produce GRAND HOTEL: THE MUSICAL, here’s your Kringelein) and Megan Tillman’s properly dithery and imperious dowager-socialite (great set of operetta-pipes, too). Thrice now have I seen Cheryl McMahon catch fire, this year: SpeakEasy’s THE MOONLIGHT ROOM showcased her dramatic side and she proved in the Reagle’s CAROUSEL that just because Mrs. Mullins doesn’t sing doesn’t mean she cannot make a lasting impression; if Kimberly McClure’s dotty Letitia Peabody Primrose (for the Vokes) was akin to Zasu Pitts, Ms. McMahon served up some baggy-pants vaudeville for her showstopping “Repent”, piling up laughs from Ms. Primrose’s wackiness rather than from shameless barnstorming. Ms. McMahon has achieved that enviable position for a performer: whatever the show, it will be a good one whenever Ms. McMahon appears. (The Overtures production didn’t bring out a train for the famous image of Ms. Primrose hiding out on its cowcatcher --- had it did, Ms. McMahon’s facial expressions, no doubt, would have been priceless.)

Why must live theatre be so perishable? Those who missed this TWENTIETH CENTURY must make do with these words, instead, and what I have tried to evoke cannot equal what its three lucky audiences experienced at the Majestic. Like a great orgasm, you just had to be there.

"On the Twentieth Century" (23 - 25 September)
Cutler Majestic Theatre, Tremont Street, BOSTON, MA
1 (800) 233-3123

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