On The Twentieth Century
American Airlines Theatre
8 April 2015
It is not every great diva role that brings home the bacon for the originating performer when a new musical premieres. Ethel Merman did not win a Tony Award for Gypsy; Kelli O’Hara did not win for Bridges of Madison County and dozens of other great female performers have not seen their originating performances honoured with Broadway’s top accolade. Madeline Kahn did not win a Tony for her performance as Lily Garland in the original Hal Prince helmed production of On The Twentieth Century (and nor did Julia Mackenzie win an Olivier when she originated the role in the London premiere).
Sometimes, though, revivals permit the divatasitc elements of a role to become evident. So Angela Lansbury scored a Tony for the first Broadway revival of Gypsy by bringing to the role a fresh approach. One can’t see into the future, but Kristin Chenoweth must be a fairly good prospect (despite likely competition from, at least, Chita Rivera, Kelli O’Hara and Lisa Howard) to take home the Tony Award this year for her incendiary turn as Lily Garland in the Scott Ellis helmed revival of On The Twentieth Century which is now playing, as part of the Roundabout Theatre Company’s season, at the American Airlines Theatre.
Whatever your thoughts about Chenoweth to date, her performance in this musical is that one-of-a-kind, flat-out unbelievably extraordinary star turns that leaves you breathless and stunned by the power, ferocity and magnetism of the delivery, both vocal and physical, of the performance, desperate to immediately see her do it all over again and certain, quite quite certain, that, no matter how long you live, you will never see anyone play that role like that again.
This is a unique, transcendent and completely faultless performance from Chenoweth. There is no moment that she is onstage when she is not working at full volcanic capacity, when she is not bringing more to the score and the script than you could possibly have thought one person could bring. It is a towering, majestically comic and overwhelmingly astonishing performance, glamorous, hysterical and sublimely overblown.
The book, by those wordsmith geniuses, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, is a knockabout farce set almost entirely, apart from some glorious dream sequences, on a train, the Twentieth Century. A bad theatre producer has lost a lot of money on a show and is escaping his creditors. In order to put them off, he needs to sign his former leading lady (and lover) to a contract for a new show. He knows she is going to be on the train and sets out to woo her back, despite the fact that she is travelling with her current beau and bit-part movie ‘star’. Madness and mayhem ensues, especially when an elderly baptist type, who is intent upon ensuring sinners repent, offers to get her chequebook out to fund a show about Mary Magdalene.
As must be clear, the plot is nonsense of the silliest kind, full of possibilities for richly eccentric and downright daft performances. By and large, Ellis ensures the cast delivers exactly that – in spades. But Chenoweth is the throbbing heart of the hilarity here, and she doesn’t miss a beat.
From her first appearance, in a flashback to the time she first met the theatre director Oscar Jaffe, when she was ordinary, hardworking accompanist, Mildred Plotka, Chenoweth is riveting. Her reactions to the out of tune singing of the auditionee she is playing for are priceless. Jaffe casts her in the role and in a blink she is suddenly Lily Garland, fully formed theatre star going full belt in an outrageously camp Parisian romp – Veronique – twirling guns and very small flags, backed by a terrific ensemble all in outrageous costumes and performing slick, very precise dance routines. It looks like the kind of show Max Bialystock would have favoured over Springtime For Hitler.
From there Chenoweth goes from strength to strength. She has some deliciously dirty interplay with Andy Karl’s magnificently self-adoring dimwit of a film star wanna be, Bruce – their doggie role-playing, sexual banter (including at one point some hilarious nipple tweaking – Karl’s not Chenoweth’s) and deeply loving mistrust of each other is intoxicating and infectious. The physical comedy is extraordinary – genius pratfalls, violent face-slapping, marvellous entrances and exits involving banging doors and many photos of Bruce, a genius play on “Shoo!”. And watch her breast acting when she runs! Excruciating silliness of the perfect kind.
Equally, the relationship with Jaffe is mined by Chenoweth for all its comic gold. Peter Gallagher is in fine, high-comic form as Jaffe, and he does his very best to keep pace with the mercurial and manic manoeuvres of Chenoweth. The sequence where Jaffe is trying to sell Lily on the new venture and she is imagining how to incorporate a crucifixion image of Mary Magdalene into the storyline is but one triumphant genius moment among many.
It’s true that at times the middle of Chenoweth’s voice seems scratchy, but when she either belts or lets her immaculate high soprano soar into full, astonishing bloom, she is simply unsurpassable. The vocal gymnastics and dynamics she shows off here are out of this world. The stamina and endless energy she displays is remarkable enough, but for one so tiny it seems, frankly, inhuman. Truly, what Chenoweth accomplishes here has to be seen to be believed. And it should not be missed.
Gallagher and Karl have a marvellous duet together, Mine, where each is looking at their own reflection, but it appears to the audience that they are looking at each other. This is another magical moment of refined joy, of male arrogance and preening at its zenith. Indeed, throughout Karl does not put a foot wrong, except when he executes a quite phenomenal slide off a sofa and then the wrongfootedness is entirely deliberate. His performance is as over-ripe, able-bodied and completely cod as it has to be. He is a quite perfect, physically prime, imbecile, totally in the thrall of Lily and dependant upon her goodwill for his career. Gold.
Peter Gallagher is frequently excellent. He demonstrates superb comic timing and a lusty, zealous sense of the improbable and the absurd which helps fire the farcical elements of the plot. But he is not as consistent as Chenoweth or Karl and unlike them does not always make the most of the opportunities the role offers. His singing is consistently good; again, he could take risks with the delivery which might pay off.
He is, however, somewhat hampered by the quite dull performances given by Mark Linn Baker and Michael McGrath as Oliver and Owen, his production assistants. Oddly, both men opt for run of the mill blankness for character traits, when the parts are written in ways which would permit a great deal of comic virtuosity. The two characters need to gel more as a comedy duo, as well as part of a trio with Jaffe. That failure diminishes the options open to Gallagher to shine.
Mary Louise Wilson is a triumph of deceptive gentility as the Baptist Letitia Peabody Primrose who offers salvation in many forms to those on board the train. She too is a masterful comic creation and, especially in the big production number, She’s A Nut, Wilson is riotously eccentric and wry. She is almost like the eye of the hurricane of comedy around her, although her calm demeanour and diffidence provides its own comic thrills.
The four porters, who dance and sing and comment on the action throughout, like a glittery, glitzy Greek chorus are particularly fabulous: Rick Faugno, Richard Riaz Yoder, Phillip Attmore and Drew King – individually they are terrific (Faugno has an astonishing pure tenor voice) but together they are complete joy. Their Life Is Like A Train number is a glorious beginning to the second Act.
The ensemble is terrific, tuneful and tapping. They sing Cy Coleman’s extraordinary score with verve, clear diction and a real sense of style. Warren Carlyle’s choreography is ceaselessly inventive and gladdens the heart throughout. The sense of madcap fun achieved throughout is electric; the unexpected move or routine is everywhere.
William Ivey Young has excelled himself with the immaculate, utterly gorgeous period costumes. Everyone, man and woman alike, is turned out in terrific tailored perfection. Chenoweth wears some impossibly gorgeous gowns, and just when you think she can’t have another outfit, she does, and all of them are tasteful, flattering and stunning. Gallagher and Karl are equally lucky – their suits are divine and add immeasurably to the tone of their performances. The porters have excellent livery as well, all adding to the enchantment factor.
The set from David Rockwell is an Art Deco fantasy centred around three compartments of the titular train. There are many clever touches to the set which enhance the farcical nature of the piece – Wilson’s fun with the various versions of the train is first rate; Gallagher’s first appearance, hanging to the side of the moving train, is cleverly achieved; there is even an aeroplane for contrast. The furniture and furnishings are divine and resplendent, emphasising the standard of travel offered on the train. There is always something visually stimulating about the set, and the use of doors for head banging and comic set-up is very clever. Donald Holder’s lighting gives every scene its proper, gorgeously effective glow.
If there is a small complaint, it is about the orchestrations (Larry Hochman). There are not enough strings to swell the sound as it might be swelled, and nor does the brass section have the firepower that the score would benefit from. Sadly, the playing seems a little dull for the lively score. It doesn’t really detract in the immediacy of the moment, but there is a lingering sense that more orchestral support would give a lift to what is otherwise a buoyant and thrilling production.
Ellis has ensured that new life pulses through the show just as the Twentieth Century itself thunders along its track. The whole show looks and feels vibrant and exciting. This is a tremendous production of a neglected masterpiece.
And in Kristin Chenoweth’s star turn, it has something no other show on Broadway has: a diva doing the impossible – effortlessly. No one with any interest in musical theatre should miss out on savouring this once-in-a-generation turn from Chenoweth.
The definition of tour de force.