Richard and I saw this musical on Broadway on 3/18. This is the story: Oscar Jaffe, an up and down theatrical producer, is escaping from Chicago after his most recent project closed, during intermission no less! He boards the Twentieth Century, a super deluxe Art Deco train headed for New York. He finagles to pick up movie star Lily Garland on the way - - he discovered her, was briefly his girlfriend, she has since won an Oscar, and he wants to convince her to do his next project.
I’ll give you a brief tour of the history of the show. It came into the world as a play, *Twentieth Century*, it played on Broadway in 1932-33 - - no one I recognize in the cast, written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, best known for *The Front Page*. They adapted the play for the movies in 1934, starring John Barrymore and Carole Lombard. The play was revived on Broadway in 1950-51, starring Jose Ferrer and Gloria Swanson (they were doing this show when he won the Oscar for *Cyrano de Bergerac* and she did NOT win the Oscar for *Sunset Blvd*). It was revived again in 2004 for Alec Baldwin and Anne Heche.
The musical version is from 1978, book and lyrics by Comden and Green (who also did *On the Town*, the movie *Singin’ in the Rain*, etc), music by Cy Coleman (best known for *Sweet Charity*). The star couple was John Cullum and Madeline Kahn - - Cullum won a Tony, also Tonys for Comden and Green, Coleman, and Kevin Kline as Lily Garland’s vapid movie star boyfriend. Kahn was nominated, but didn’t win, probably because she left the show after only nine weeks (she was replaced by her understudy, Judy Kaye, who I read was boffo in the role, went on to tour the show with Rock Hudson, and has had a marvelous Broadway career). Comden and Green added the character of Letitia Primrose, a batty old lady who appears to have lots of money but turns out to have only a few marbles. Imogene Coca played this role in the original production.
The current production was built around Kristin Chenoweth playing Lily Garland. She was born to do this role, it requires a wacky comedienne with a legit operatic voice. How many of those do ya see? She was fantastic, sang like a dream and totally delivered the goods. You could tell she was having a great time, was pulling out all the stops. She’s given two long involved dazzling production numbers, one in the first act, one in the second, and they deservedly stopped the show. I hate to quibble with such a wonderful performance, but I couldn’t always understand what she was saying. And this isn’t her fault, but her wig was unforgivably cheesy.
Peter Gallagher played Oscar Jaffe, was wonderful, had just the right manic egomania. He has a handsome voice and generally sang well, but was riding a little low to the ground now and then (that’s my diplomatic way of saying he was singing flat). Not all the time, let’s say a third of the time. Mary Louise Wilson played Primrose - - she didn’t have the madcap quality that I’m sure Coco brought to the role, she was more ladylike, but it worked for her. She was adorable.
Andy Karl played Garland’s boyfriend, he was adorable and hilarious, flexing his muscles to great effect. And he comes by those muscles honestly, we last saw him starring in *Rocky, the Musical*! Nice to see him doing a little something different, and doing it so well. Jaffe’s two cohorts were played by Mark Linn-Baker and Michael McGrath, they were just right. Their second act song, “Five zeros”, was one of the highlights of the show. It was hilarious and touching, not a combination you often encounter.
I was annoyed by the orchestrations. I imagine they were scaled down from the original production, which I bet had a larger orchestra. There’s a good way to do this and a bad way: you have to retool the music for a chamber ensemble, it doesn’t work to try and beef up the sound with a synthesizer, it sounds fake and flat.
I’ve mentioned the two show-stopping numbers for Miss Garland, but the biggest ovation of the show was for the four tap-dancing porters. They did a number to open the show and a more elaborate number at the start of the second act, “Life is like a train.” It was thrilling on a number of levels - - Coleman wrote a masterpiece of counterpoint, I think it might have been a fugue! How often do ya hear that in a Broadway show. And the choreography by Warren Carlyle was incredible. I’ve always been fascinated by tap dancing, because it’s both dancing and music: it’s dancing, obviously, but the rhythm of it becomes part of the music, or when it’s done well (as it was here) a distinct voice in the music. The rhythm was very complex, sometimes the music was in a four pattern and the dancing in a three pattern, and it was exciting hearing that disconnection gradually leading to a re-connection. They had a few moments like this in the show, but this top-of-the-second-act number was sensational. I perked right up whenever those four boys came onstage, and the show was pretty damn perky to start with.
Chenoweth will almost certainly be nominated for a Tony for her performance. She won a Tony with her first nomination, playing Lucy in *You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown* in 1999. I bet Kelli O’Hara broke out in a cold sweat when she heard Chenoweth was doing this show - - O’Hara has been nominated for a Tony five times but has never won, and is about to open *The King and I*. I bet she was hoping this would be her year! It’ll be very interesting to see how that pans out.