Over the past two years there has been a movement in London toward pocket-size revivals of classic American musicals. For years the 240 seat Donmar Warehouse has been mounting brilliant productions of Sondheim musicals (most recently PASSION) and serious musicals like Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry's PARADE. Now even smaller fringe venues are beginning to follow suit. The seventry-five seat Union Theatre, under the railroad tracks near Waterloo Station specializes in musicals. The equally tiny Southwark Playhouse near London Bridge station is about to produce Sondheim's COMPANY. And now the claustrophobic King's Head pub theatre in Islington is producing a season of small-scale operas in modern revisions with piano accompaniment. These theatres offer excellent productions at bargain prices (£15 or less).
These very low budget revivals depend on directoral ingenuity and good performances to compensate for the lack of spectacle. These minimalist productions also put the spotlight on script and score with no smoke and mirrors to cover their inadequacies.
The first thing one remembers about the original Harold Prince production of ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY in 1978 was the gorgeous scenery, all silver and art deco. It was one of the most visually beautiful productions I have ever seen. It was also a brilliant, funny show with a fast-paced book and an extremely witty score and lyrics (Cy Coleman, Betty Comden and Adolph Green) that was closer to something like Bernstein's CANDIDE than the typical Broadway score. Coleman's score was very different from his catchy, tune-filled scores for SWEET CHARITY or BARNUM. There were no excerptable potential hit songs here. Everything fit character and situation and the style of the piece, more Rossini in places than Broadway. The music was as clever as the lyrics. The cast was brilliant -- John Cullum, Judy Kaye (replacing Madeleine Kahn), veteran comic Imogene Coca and the brilliant debut of Kevin Kline. Of course, something this sophisticated was lost in the giant St. James Theatre and, frankly, too intelligent for Broadway even in 1978 and ran for only a year. In 2011, it wouldn't stand a chance on Broadway.
The Union Theatre production, cleverly directed by Ryan McBryde (choreographer Drew McOnie) had a hard-working cast of eleven playing all the roles as well as serving as chorus. The only sceneery were pieces of luggage and two door units on wheels. The costumes were pure thrift shop. The band consisted of four saxophones and a piano. As usual with these fringe productions, there were no microphones (horray!). What can I say? It all worked and made one appreciate what a good show this is. The book was wisely trimmed to the essentials so the focus was on the wonderful score. The cast was fine. Where do they get all these talented people who must be paid next to nothing? Howard Samuels, who played the crafty impressario Oscar Jaffe, doesn't have much of a singing voice but is a great stage comic, sort of Nathan Lane with a larger bag of tricks. The role of film star Lily Garland is a difficult one, requiring a singer who can both sing coloratura and belt, sometimes in the same phrase. The original Lily, Madeleine Kahn, left the show after a couple of months, claiming that the demands of the score ruined her voice. Rebecca Vere sang it all and played the comedy well. Everyone else was fine, particularly Valda Aviks as the mad evangelist, Letitia Primrose. Her part was tailor-made for Imogene Coca, but Aviks made it seem like it was written for her. The cast threw themselves into the madcap spirit of the show.
Like the Union Theatre's IOLANTHE, the production of ON THE 20TH CENTURY managed to transcend the dumpy theater (though nothing could transcend the men's room!). Four stars!
ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY. Music by Cy Coleman. Book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Union Theatre. January 5, 2011.