San Diego Theater Review: ON THE 20TH CENTURY (Cygnet Theatre Company)

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by Milo Shapiro on April 2, 2017

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


In today’s world of seeing T-shirts in fancy restaurants, it’s almost difficult to envision that, once upon a time, people would dress to the nines for a 16-hour train ride, being attended to by spiffy stewards, waiters, and chefs. But that’s exactly what hundreds of New York’s elite did every day, finding the trip aboard the 20th Century Limited to be as much of an experience as a means to get to and from Chicago. Composer Cy Coleman and bookwriter/lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green use this luxury liner as the vehicle (literally and figuratively) to take us on a ride with their glamorous, over-the-top characters.

Immediately striking is designer Sean Fanning’s impressive set, which permeates glamour and grandeur before an actor ever hits the stage. Throughout the journey, cleverly shifting set pieces create different perspectives: We might be looking directly into three train compartments one moment; another we are seeing characters through the windows; at times, we even see the whole train from the distance, courtesy of video screens above. In all respects, Fanning conveys the grandeur. Throw in four tap dancing porters and the feeling is well underway.

After a string of flops, Broadway producer Oscar Jaffe (Sean Murray, who also directs) boards the 20th Century. His intention is to convince stage and film icon Lily Garland (Eileen Bowman) to be in his next production to save his career and get him out of debt. Because of the personal history between them, she wants nothing to do with him. Simple, right? But it takes the whole first act to convey mostly just that much.

Therein lies the biggest issue with the show: Even within the context of a comic operetta, everything takes too long to be conveyed, significantly more so in the songs, which go on far longer than they should. Whole verses and repeating choruses could easily be cut to create a tight, fun musical instead of one that goes on longer than it should.

Given this, Murray—as the show’s director—doesn’t miss a beat conveying the feeling of the 1930s and the slapstick energy of the script. As the sleazy, manipulative Oscar, Murray also excels. Bowman fills the stage with her theatrical presence and dynamic vocals, finding humor in every tiny detail. Playing Lily’s current co-star and paramour, the petulant and insecure hunk Bruce Granit, Michael Cusimano’s physical comedy and pratfalls rival David Brannen’s excellent choreography in the eye-candy department. San Diego favorite Melinda Gilb is a stand out as a wealthy, religious fanatic and nut job, Letitia Primrose, who tries clandestinely to do good in God’s name.

Cygnet’s production is a warm, pleasing look at a time gone by with zealous, upbeat performances that make fine use of the medium-sized stage in Old Town. It just sometimes feels like this ride takes longer than need be to get us to our destination.

photos by Ken Jacques

On the 20th Century
Cygnet Theatre Company
Old Town Theater, 4040 Twiggs St.
Wed & Thurs at 7:30; Fri at 8; Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 2 & 7
ends on April 30, 2017
for tickets, call 619-337-1525 or visit Cygnet

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