NEW YORK – The first revival of the 1978 musical “On the Twentieth Century” recently opened at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater on West 42nd Street. This Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and Cy Coleman musical adaptation of the 1932 Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur and Charles Bruce Millholland comedy is still a funny farce of entertaining nonsense.
You might remember the 1934 movie version, which starred John Barrymore and Carole Lombard. That still works, too.
In this “Twentieth Century,” the stellar stars are Peter Gallagher and Kristin Chenoweth. Mr. Gallagher plays Oscar Jaffee, a brash Broadway producer caught in a cauldron of failure after his fourth flop has just closed in Chicago. Ms. Chenoweth here finds her best stage role as Oscar’s former amour, Lily Garland (born Mildred Plotka), who was discovered by Mr. Jaffee, became his protégé and romantic interest, but, after a blow-up with Mr. Jaffee, fled him and the New York stage for Hollywood to become a successful platinum-blonde movie star.
Surprisingly, they meet again aboard the Chicago-to-New York streamliner, and the dramatic crux of the evening becomes Oscar’s trying to woo Lily back into his favor to become the star of his new theater venture. All this must be done with locomotive speed because he has only 16 hours on the train to get her signature on a contract before they arrive in New York.
There are obstacles: Lily has a new beau, Bruce Granit (Andy Karl), who is exceptionally devoted to her and is a very athletic specimen. Mr. Karl seemed to have trained for the role last season by playing the lead role in the musical “Rocky.” Mr. Jaffee does have a couple of funny, moonstruck helpers: Mark Linn-Baker, an agent; and Michael McGrath, a press agent, who would rather be drinking in the train’s bar car. Also in this comic brio commotion is Letitia Peabody Primrose (Mary Louise Wilson), who is pretending to be a rich religious fanatic, though we find out (spoiler alert) she is on the run from a Midwest insane asylum. Madcap antics never stop ensuing in the corridors of the “Twentieth Century.”
Playing Lily Garland, we get to see a new Ms. Chenoweth. At 46, she has become a sophisticated successor to her early Broadway roles, like Sally in “You’ve a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” for which she won a Tony, and for Glinda in “Wicked” and Fran Kubelik in the recent revival of “Promises Promises.”
As Lily Garland, she commands the stage in a first-rate comic performance. This new Ms. Chenoweth is a stunner, not only a comedienne but a farceuse, a new Duse of song and dance shows. She is a trained opera singer, and Mr. Coleman’s opera buffa score suits her voice to a T. Her voice starts low and goes right up the scale to a pure coloratura soprano. She hits it time and time again. Her vocal pyrotechnics take your breath away. Ms. Chenoweth never has had a stage role that has shown her singing prowess properly the way that Lily Garland does.
Though Ms. Chenoweth takes over the show, she is, of course, not alone on stage and is by no means the sole contributor to the fun of “On the Twentieth Century.” Mr. Gallagher as Oscar turns out to be also a great artist in this broadest kind of comedy, and he hams it all up histrionically. He also proves to be a fine singer, especially in his duets with Ms. Chenoweth. Together, they are a magnificent team: He is snapping Oscar while she holds her own as sweetly mocking Lily.
Director Scott Ellis staged the production expertly and keeps it moving. It is never mawkish or maudlin. He and choreographer Warren Carlyle integrate the songs, words, dances and music and have fitted everything together in an entertainment that swoops through the evening at their pace, which is rapid. There are four train porters – Rick Faugno, Richard Riaz Yoder, Phillip Atimore and Drew King – who help move, and sometimes tap dance, the action along.
The art deco scenery is elegant in its golds and beiges, and the off-white costumes by William Ivey Long are exquisitely proper 1930s, while everything is bathed in Donald Holder’s colorful lighting design. After 37 years, this is a delightful, entertaining new look at “On the Twentieth Century,” and it gives Ms. Chenoweth a chance to play a real Broadway starring role.
Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.