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New York City Theater

"On the Twentieth Century"
American Airlines Theater

Egos ricochet like bullets in Roundabout’s rat-a-tat revival of “On the Twentieth Century.” And why not? For war is the standard go-to vogue among the maniacal show biz types fighting to the death for their turf in the 1978 musical, having its first Broadway revival.

Based on the comedy “Twentieth Century” by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur (who, in turn, based their work on Charles Bruce Millholland’s unproduced “The Napoleon of Broadway,” the piece actually had its origins in the life and career of two early Main Stem impresarios, David Belasco and Jed Harris. The leading character, here named Oscar Jaffe, is a failed producer whose latest fiasco closed in Chicago – at intermission.

Desperate for a comeback, the flamboyant Jaffe books a drawing room on the 20th Century Limited, the crack train that whooshed from Chicago to New York in 16 hours in the 30s. Said room just happens to be next to a compartment in which screen star Lily Garland will alight with her muscle-bound boy-toy, Bruce Granit.

Years ago, before she became a movie star, Lily was discovered by Jaffe who became not only her mentor but her lover. Many tempestuous fights later, they’ve split and Jaffe wants to lure her back to the stage as Mary Magdalene, of all people, in a planned production of “The Passion Play,” to be financed by a kooky, religious would-be millionairess who happens to be on the same train. Amidst lots of farcical door-slammings, posings, chases and general mayhem, all turns out well.

The play was the basis for a terrific screwball movie with John Barrymore and Carole Lombard. Later, the comedy was successfully revived on Broadway by other larger-than-life actors, Jose Ferrer and Gloria Swanson. (We won’t mention a more recent stage version with Alec Baldwin and Anne Heche.)

In the current revival, Peter Gallagher’s Oscar and Kristin Chenoweth’s Lily more than fill the Barrymore-Ferrer, Lombard-Swanson shoes. Gallagher swaggers with a devilish glint, a true Svengali who devours his prey. Even his unruly hair is that of a wild man who will do anything, even feign death, to get his way.

As Lily, Chenoweth all but erases the case of the cutes that has marred her career ever since she made a smashing debut in “Steel Pier.” Her usual flirting with the audience now fits the role, for Lily is also an unabashed audience-seducer. Chenoweth also gleams as a fine comedienne in the Lombard “I’m-pretty-but-I’m also-funny” mode. Whether poking her finger at Jaffe’s henchman, allowing herself to become a barbell for her gym-rat b.f. or getting hoisted onto the shoulder of an imposing Max Jacobs (Jaffe’s rival), Chenoweth is as wily as she is adorable.

In a role that did in the great Madeleine Kahn (she left early in the original run), Chenoweth sings in a wide range, from opera coloratura to Broadway belter. The score is operetta-lite, starting with the title number and going all the way to the comical “Repent” and the romantic “Our Private World.” One major drawback of this production: the orchestra (12 pieces and a synthesizer) is so over-miked that many lyrics are lost.

Andy Karl is amusing as the awkward Granit, whose name fits his physique. Those two wonderful tough-but-gentle actors, Mark Linn-Baker and Michael McGrath are just as wonderful here as Jaffe’s factotums, while Mary Louise Wilson is sly as the nutty Letitia Primrose.

Almost stealing the show are four tap-dancing Pullman porters, Rick Faugno, Richard Riaz Yoder, Phillip Attmore and Drew King. Whenever they show up, the audience’s adrenaline kicks in, thanks to their rendering of Warren Carlyle’s frisky choreography. Invaluable to the slick evening’s pleasures are David Rockwell’s Art Deco sets, Donald Holder’s spiffy lighting and William Ivey Long’s dazzling costumes.

Don’t look for greatness here. “On the Twentieth Century” steams ahead as pure, mindless entertainment. In director Scott Ellis’s formidable hands, it’s as confident of its destination as its journey.

--David A. Rosenberg
March 21, 2015

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