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Even when it first opened on Broadway in 1978, On the Twentieth Century already seemed old-fashioned: a backstage musical set in the 1920s featuring elements of farce and screwball comedy, with a bouncy Cy Coleman score and show-within-a-show production numbers evoking the era. And now it’s back on Broadway in a fun and fizzy revival from director Scott Ellis at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre on Broadway.
Peter Gallagher exudes leading-man swagger as a deep-in-debt theater director-producer named Oscar Jaffe who boards the Twentieth Century Limited train after the premature closing of his latest flop in Chicago bound for bankruptcy and ignominy in New York. On board, he and his aides de camp (played by the dependable comic sidekicks Michael McGrath and Mark Linn-Baker) hatch a plan for a comeback when they return to Manhattan in 16 hours. The centerpiece of their scheme: securing the signature of the lady in the suite next door, Lily Garland (Kristin Chenoweth), an Oscar-winning movie star whom Jaffe had discovered years ago but with whom he’d had an epic falling-out.
As Lily, Chenoweth deploys her operatic soprano and her full vamp diva routine, whether she’s posing for paparazzi or wrapping her palooka of a boyfriend (Rocky‘s Andy Karl) around her diminutive, jewel-bedecked fingers. She also gets some of the show’s best zingers, the handiwork of the incomparable lyricists and book-writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green. That dynamic duo are experiencing a comeback this season with their 1944 hit On the Town running just a few doors down on 42nd Street. While their work here foreshadows another ubiquitous Broadway trend — building a stage musical from a beloved movie, in this case the 1934 Howard Hawks film Twentieth Century — few contemporary wordsmiths could concoct rhymes as wittily wondrous as femme fatale/fleur-de-mal or Genie/Houdini. Coleman’s score, meanwhile, is a tuneful mashup of roaring-’20s zip and late-20th-century Broadway pizzazz — though there’s not really a breakout song in the mix.
On the Twentieth Century is a pleasant bagatelle of a show, and Ellis and his production team bring a glossy polish to the proceedings. (David Rockwell designed the art-deco sets and William Ivey Long the period-perfect costumes.) And while the characters are about as rounded as a railroad line, the cast is uniformly excellent. The 83-year-old Mary Louise Wilson is particularly noteworthy as the aptly named Letitia Primrose, a deeply religious pharmaceutical queen who offers to finance Jaffe’s new production but who has a few surprises up her floral-print sleeves — and inside her capacious purse. (In the lobby, you can buy onesies with one of her catchphrases, “There’s dirty doings going on.”)
The Roundabout’s cramped stage doesn’t allow for many full-on production numbers to showcase Warren Carlyle’s choreography. The one exception: the act-opening and interstitial routines of a quartet of tap-dancing train porters played with apple-cheeked spunk by Phillip Attmore, Rick Faugno, Drew King, and Richard Riaz Yoder. These chorus boys carry more than just luggage. In fact, they shuffle-step off with the biggest ovation at the curtain call, and deservedly so. Grade: B+