Monday, March 23, 2015

On the 20th Century: Spiffy Ride

On the 20th Century, the 1978 musical currently being favored with a gold-standard revival by the Roundabout Theatre Company, is adapted from one of the great Hollywood screwball farces of the thirties, Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century. Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur based their screenplay on their 1932 Broadway show, which had begun life as an unproduced play by Charles Bruce Milholland called Napoleon of Broadway, but the Hawks movie is better than its source. (The Roundabout produced the straight version in 2004, with Alec Baldwin and Anne Heche.) The 1934 film Twentieth Century is often labeled a romantic comedy, but really it’s a hard-boiled comedy like Hecht and MacArthur’s The Front Page and Kaufman and Hart’s Once in a Lifetime; the only love affair the two protagonists, down-on-his-luck showman Oscar Jaffe and his ex-wife and one-time star Lily Garland, now a movie celebrity, conduct is with themselves. Twentieth Century is perhaps the most extravagant and hilarious display of narcissism in the history of movie comedy, and the incandescent spectacle of John Barrymore and Carole Lombard as the dueling egotists – who suggest utterly heartless counterparts to the hero and heroine of Kiss Me, Kate – hasn’t dimmed in the intervening eight decades. The picture is called Twentieth Century because almost all of it takes place on the gleaming art deco train, a landmark of its era, that carries Oscar and Lily from Chicago to New York. Oscar and his hard-drinking sycophants, his press agent (Roscoe Karns) and business manager (Walter Connolly), have thirty-six hours in which to save their wobbly producing enterprise, battered by one expensive, misbegotten flop after another, by convincing Lily, who walked out on Oscar long ago, to sign on for a new show with him.

The musical hasn’t been produced on Broadway since its original 1978 run, when it was directed by Harold Prince and starred John Cullum and Madeline Kahn. (Kahn’s performance on the cast album is remarkable, but she dropped out after only nine weeks and was replaced by Judy Kaye.) The show ran for a year and a half and toured the country, yet despite its success and despite the first-rate book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green (among their best work) and the robust, tuneful and varied Cy Coleman music (his best score except for City of Angels), it’s never enjoyed the reputation it deserves. The Roundabout production, directed by Scott Ellis and choreographed by Warren Carlyle, showcases what’s so special about the musical. The David Rockwell set – a beauty – and Donald Holder’s glistening lighting design even manage to replicate, more or less, the complicated stagecraft of the 1978 version (with its much touted Robin Wagner setting), which includes not only a series of cross-sections of the train but, at a climactic moment (the mid-second-act ensemble number “She’s a Nut”), turns it around so that it travels toward the audience with the “nut,” a devout Baptist named Letitia Peabody Primrose who’s been masquerading as a millionaire philanthropist, implausibly but uproariously strapped to its front.

Photo by Joan Marcus.
Musical-comedy fans must have begun licking their lips when the casting for the Roundabout 20th Century was announced last year. Who wouldn’t want to see these roles appropriated by Peter Gallagher and Kristin Chenoweth? When I saw the show it was still in previews, and Gallagher was fighting a cold, but even not quite at his best he propelled himself through Oscar’s booming, brassy songs of self-adoration, like “I Rise Again,” with the ironic wit and panache of an expert parodist. (For some reason the character is Oscar Jaffee, with an extra “e,” in the musical.) Chenoweth is a diva herself, but she’s such a weird combination of elements – a brilliantly trained coloratura voice, a diminutive stature, a burlesque humor and a touch of lunacy – that she’s an ideal choice for sending up another diva. Among today’s signal musical-theatre women stars, Chenoweth shares with Kelli O’Hara and Laura Benanti a modesty that not only makes her immensely likable but puts her in the optimal category for parodying characters with outsize self-images. (I’m thinking here of both Carol Burnett and Gilda Radner.) As Lily, née Mildred Plotka, who begins, in flashback, as an audition pianist for a dreadful woman named Imelda Thornton (Paula Leggett Chase, in a perfectly calibrated one-scene performance) and becomes Oscar’s latest discovery, Chenoweth gives an inspired clown’s performance, using her size to hint at the absurdity of Lily’s pretensions.

Ellis keeps dreaming up ways to churn comedy out of that size. Andy Karl, giving a brilliant second-banana performance as Lily’s current flame – a witless leading man named Bruce Granit (Kevin Kline played it on Broadway at the outset of his career) who is as relentlessly self-involved as she is – keeps lifting her up as if she were a barbell.  Lily and Bruce’s love play is meant to be ridiculously childish as well as utterly superficial; in this production it’s a form of calisthenics. There isn’t a weak spot in the cast. Mark Linn-Baker, fresh off his stint as Paul in You Can’t Take It with You (he’s having a hell of a season), and Michael McGrath are perfectly teamed as Oscar’s loyal, much-abused aides, Oliver Webb and Owen O’Malley. Mary Louise Wilson, picking up the madwoman role created by Imogene Coca (in a gender switch from the movie version, where it was played by Etienne Girardot), is so willowy that she looks as if a strong wind could blow her out an open train window, but she nails down her big number, “Repent.” (Her elasticity made  me think of Charlotte Greenwood, the eccentric musical-theatre comedian who slipped in and out of a few early movie musicals.) One of the musical’s running gags is the insistence of all the types who cross paths with Oscar – a conductor, a congressman, a physician – on presenting him with plays that dramatize their professional lives; “I Have Written a Play” is sung, at intervals, by the equally skillful Jim Walton, Andy Taylor and Linda Mugleston.

The actors, particularly the women, are swathed in creations by the prolific William Ivey Long that are among my favorites of the many costumes I’ve seen by him over the years. This revival of On the 20th Century is everything one might wish. And as a devotee of Comden and Green, I’m delighted to be able to recommend another fine revival of one of their musicals. In my review of Lives of the Saints a couple of weeks ago, I called its director, John Rando, the King of 42nd Street, since his production of the Comden-Green-Leonard Bernstein On the Town is playing on the same block. The American Airlines Theatre, which is housing On the 20th Century, is right next door to the Duke of 42nd Street, where Lives of the Saints is holed up. How about renaming 42nd between Broadway and 8th Avenue Comden & Green Alley?

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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