Los Angeles Theater Review: ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY (Musical Theatre West in Long Beach)

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by Tony Frankel on May 23, 2016

in Theater-Los Angeles


When it opened on Broadway in 1978, On the Twentieth Century achieved the impossible. Cy Coleman’s clever score—a beautiful pastiche of turn-of-the-century operetta and silent film scores with some added jazz and musical comedy bounce—collided on the tracks with Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s delectably chewy lyrics and screwball script, resulting in a show both old-fashioned and wholly original. Excepting the limited-run revival starring Kristin Chenoweth that hit the Great White Way last year, this truly is one of those rarely produced masterworks. Why? It calls for behemoth productions values, a grand orchestra, and singers who can both replicate grand operetta and handle farce with finesse.

Well, am I ever upset with Musical Theatre West. Not only did they have the nerve to take on this most impossible of dreams by presenting this grand-dame musical as a staged reading, but they made it one of the finest evenings of entertainment I have had in the theater since quite possibly the twentieth century itself. David Lamoureux, who is also producer of the Reiner Reading Series with Michael Betts, directed with ingenious touches (actors not in the scene sat behind the action facing each other like train passengers) and a nod to radio theater (actors made a “swoosh” sound in character when entering or exiting a train compartment). Thus, the script-held, set-free experience felt like we were actually aboard a luxury line headed from Chicago to New York in the 1930s. The reason for my upset is that I can’t go back; this was a one-night only event.

The story concerns deep-in-debt theater director-producer Oscar Jaffe (a mesmeric golden-throated Chris Warren Gilbert whose gesticulations should be bottled). Jaffe boards the Twentieth Century Limited train in Chicago after the premature closing of his latest flop, bound for insolvency and disgrace in New York. His loyal aide de camps (played by the rubber-faced, Vaudevillian comic sidekicks Gabriel Kalomas and Jordan Lamoureux) hatch a plan for a comeback when they return to Manhattan in 16 hours. The scheme involves acquiring the signature of the lady in the suite next door, temperamental temptress Lily Garland (wacky Jill Van Velzer eating those high notes for breakfast), an Oscar-winning film star whom Jaffe had discovered years ago but with whom he’d had an epic love affair and even more epic falling-out.

Accidentally staying on board is Lily’s current co-star and paramour, the petulant and insecure hunk Bruce Granit (Zachary Ford, who nails the “Mine” duet with Mr. Gilbert). Also adding to the laughs is the religiously benevolent loon, Letitia Peabody Primrose, who writes checks as high as Oscar’s ego. Playing this nut job who plasters “Repent” stickers about the train is Tracy Rowe Mutz, the love child of Eddie Cantor and Eileen Brennan. Mutz got the best laughs of the night making entrances and exits with inspired lunacy. Appearing in a flashback is Karenssa LeGear, who does Kitty Carlisle on steroids as stage singer Imelda Thornton (the song “Indian Maiden’s Lament” is a brilliant send-up of Rudolf Friml’s “Indian Love Call”).

The cast of On the Twentieth Century

As with The Most Happy Fella, this is one of those scores that can’t exist with mere piano accompaniment. Fortunately, the Los Angeles Musicians Collective supplied a 19-piece orchestra, led by the infectious Musical Director Ryan O’Connell. (O’Connell joined Tyler Matthew Burk, Eric Michael Parker (the porters), and William Martinez (the conductor) for the entr’acte song “Life Is Like a Train,” and the harmonies were tighter than a Barbershop Quartet convention). It boggles the mind that the magnificent music went off without a hitch with just 25 hours of rehearsal and one run-through with the orchestra.

I have seen about a dozen of MTW’s staged readings, and I am consistently impressed with the production values. These concerts are hands-down the best nights of theater in Los Angeles. My dream is that Musical Theatre West can one day expand its enterprise to become the west coast version of New York’s ENCORES!, offering a few weekends of these beautifully produced events. (In the meantime, a thanks to benefactress Dottie Reiner, pictured with the cast above.)

Coming up June 12, 2016 is Donnybrook!, the 1961 Johnny Burke musical based on the John Wayne / Maureen O’Hara movie, The Quiet Man – I have this one on LP and it’s a gorgeous score. While not exactly rarely produced, Li’l Abner – with songs by Gene De Paul & Johnny Mercer – is as deliciously satirical as a musical comedy can be; Abner plays August 28. And the tickets are only 27 bucks, so there’s no excuse to miss these gems.

On the Twentieth Century
Musical Theatre West
Reiner Staged Reading Series
produced by Michael Betts and David Lamoureux
Carpenter Center at CSU, Long Beach
played May 15, 2016
for tickets to future shows, call 562.856.1999 x 4 or visit Musical

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