I had seen the original production of ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, which was one of the most beautiful looking musicals I have ever seen, greatly thanks to Robin Wagner's black and silver sets. The score was clever mock-operetta, the lyrics witty and the performances (John Cullum, Judy Kaye who replaced Madeleine Kahn early in the run, an unknown Kevin Kline, Imogene Coca) fine, but there was something cold about the show. Was it the material, Hal Prince's production (comedy was never his strong suit), or the fast that it was in the St. James Theatre, not one of the more intimate or warm venues? It has never been revived in New York, though there was a clever, small-scale production at the tiny, dingy Union Theatre in London a few years ago. Some how in this production with this cast, in the relatively intimate (for Broadway) American Airlines Theatre, ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY plays like a classic. It's certainly anything but cold now!
The show is a farce with a score written by Cy Coleman, a man who knew music, classical, pop and jazz. This score seems to be the closest Broadway has come to the fizz of one of Rossini's greatest comic operas. It's as clever as Bernstein's score for CANDIDE, and not as heavy-handed. There are complex ensembles, mock arias, coloratura filigree. Betty Comden and Adolph Green's book and lyrics are their best work. The two leads have to be superb comic actors and fine singers. Coleman's score for ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY deserves to join Bernstein's ON THE TOWN and Rodgers' THE KING AND I, also currently playing on Broadway. Only Lin Manuel Miranda's score for HAMILTON deserves to be in the same neighborhood. It's a joy to hear it so well performed. The band could be bigger, but it is serviceable. The vocal ensemble is excellent.
Chenoweth and Gallagher are terrific. He sings well and is a better comic performer than I thought he would be. I have never been a fan of Chenoweth, but she won me over, even though I couldn't understand everything she said or sang. She could sing the brutal part Coleman wrote for Lily Garland without faking and is a superb physical comic. Their supporting cast couldn't be better. Andy Karl makes the most out of an embodiment of Hollywood vanity. Mark Linn-Baker and Michael McGrath are terrific as Gallagher's henchmen and Mary Louise Wilson makes a star turn out of the crazy lady who is trying to save souls on the train. All these folks are masters of musical comedy. It's a joy to watch them make the most out of really good material.
Scott Ellis has paced and stage the show effectively and Warren Carlyle's tap choreography had the audience cheering. David Rockwell's sets aren't as elaborate as the original, but they did the job and William Ivey Long's period (1932), costumes -- as usual -- are gorgeous.
There were well-deserved cheers throughout the production. ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY deserved a revival this good. I'm surprised that it is closing so soon. It has been a sellout hit. I'd go back.
ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY. American Airlines Theatre. July 17, 2015.