Gee, those folks are having fun up there. That was my major takeaway from “On the Twentieth Century,” the madcap musical—it’s by Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Cy Coleman—now enjoying its first Broadway revival, at the American Airlines Theatre.
A talented cast of Broadway vets make a predictable farce and let’s-agree-to-call-it divisive score feel like a first-class ride. The rush comes not just from above-the-title stars Kristin Chenoweth and Peter Gallagher, but from other unexpected places, including rousing tap dance numbers and a screwball turn by the actor most recently seen as Broadway’s “Rocky.”
Set in the 1930s, “Twentieth Century” unfolds aboard a luxury coach en route from Chicago to New York. Oscar Jaffee, a bankrupt theater producer (Gallagher), has finagled a drawing room next to Lily Garland, a Hollywood leading lady (Chenoweth) who happens to be his ex-flame. Oscar’s motive? To cajole the starlet into signing on for his next big show … which doesn’t yet exist.
It’s 37 years since “On the Twentieth Century” has been seen on Broadway, in a production that starred an often-absent Madeline Kahn, who left after nine weeks and is blamed by some for what they consider its stunted tenure. (The musical counts among its source materials the play “Twentieth Century,” last revived with Alec Baldwin and Anne Heche just over a decade ago in the same space.)
Chenoweth, the big-voiced star of “Wicked” and more recent fare, such as “The Apple Tree” and “Promises, Promises,” makes her entrance during a fantasy sequence that has Oscar recalling their first encounter. Back then, Lily was Mildred Poltka, a piano accompanist from the Bronx, who bowled over the producer with her fiery talk and pixieish ways.
Mildred, we see during this imagined sequence, is shortly transformed into Lily, who makes it big as the busty and risque leading lady of Oscar’s “Veronique,” a musical about a French street singer who spurs a war (the big number, pictured below, gives us our first glimpse of William Ivey Long’s lush costumes).
“Veronique” is the first of several stand-alone interludes in which Chenoweth defines Lily as a provocative narcissist—you can argue her entire performance is a tribute to the late Ms. Kahn. “Babette,” during the second act, is yet one more opportunity for the Oklahoman’s rock ’em-sock ’em cords to fill every nook of the theater.
If Peter Gallagher has been ill—a sinus infection nearly derailed this stint for the actor, who back-in-the-day was lauded as Sky Masterson opposite Nathan Lane in “Guys and Dolls”—there’s zero trace of it in his solid performance. Is there now an extra layer of subtext when Gallagher sings “I Rise Again” early in the first act, alongside his press agent and company manager (Michael McGrath and Mark Linn-Baker, both on point)?
Andy Karl does a 180-degree spin from his earnest “Rocky,” offering up a splendidly buffoonish Bruce Granit, the egomaniacal movie star who is Oscar’s rival for Lily’s affections. He and Chenoweth have a thoroughly delightful beauty-and-the-beast sort of camaraderie.
Mary Louise Wilson, the “Grey Gardens” Tony winner, is on board as Letitia Peabody Primrose, who may just be the great arts patron Oscar and his pals need to get their plans off the ground—or is she? Wilson is clearly a crowd-favorite.
Director Scott Ellis, who most recently helmed “The Elephant Man,” stages the old-fashioned musical with consistent diesel-fueled movement, notable during “She’s a Nut,” which has Wilson’s Primrose trying to outrun the folks who’ve come to lock her up. Also exceptionally pleasing are the four members of the “Pullman Porter Quartet,” who commandingly chug-chug their way through enjoyable-enough melodies such as “Life Is Like a Train.”
Theatergoers get pretty passionate about Cy Coleman’s score. I’m not one of them—this isn’t really one of those shows with songs that you leave the theater humming. That said, a slew of polished comic turns and some stellar staging make it a shrewd move to hop aboard this train.
“On the 20th Century,” through July 5 at the American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St. Tickets: $67-$147. Call 212-719-1300.