What director Scott Ellis has done, quite astonishingly, is to deliver a production that’s faithful to the grand traditions of yore and yet gives them fresh new interpretations for audiences who may not even know that “Twentieth Century” was the name of a train. We see the new approach clearly in David Rockwell’s set design, which echoes Robin Wagner’s Tony-winning original without copying it. It’s still a surprise to see lavish Art Deco staterooms and a looming locomotive steaming right toward us; it’s still a delight to see Rockwell play with the scale of the train, as Wagner did. The designs function much as Wagner’s did, but when you compare them to photos of the originals, then you confirm that Rockwell came up with a look of his own.
It’s a relief to say that Kristin Chenoweth prevails as Lily Garland, a role that nearly destroyed its creator, Madeline Kahn. They’re different performers in many ways, though. Chenoweth is more physical — she dances more confidently, for one thing, and she’s given some elaborate choreography here, especially in the production numbers “Veronique” and “Babbette.” Feistier than elegant, more fireball than grande dame, Chenoweth zips and spins all over the stage, and when co-star Andy Karl uses her body like a barbell to do his biceps curls, she’s game.
Chenoweth’s name came up virtually every time I discussed Twentieth Century in interviews for Madeline’s biography; as Victor Garber put it, “At any given moment, there are maybe five people on earth who can sing that role,” and he cited Judy Kaye (who replaced Madeline in the original production) and Chenoweth as examples. Like Kaye, Chenoweth appears to find no difficulty in singing a strenuously demanding score that Madeline feared would wreck her voice; more comfortable in her chest voice than Madeline ever was, Chenoweth romps throughout the range of Lily’s music.
As her former paramour–Svengali and current nemesis, Oscar Jaffee, Peter Gallagher brings matinée idol looks and a pleasingly affected accent that comes and goes. He’s a strong singer, though his baritone voice is lighter than that of John Cullum, who created the role: he can’t quite reach the vocal bravado that Cullum exploited, and Gallagher’s Oscar is consequently less grandiose. But this chimes with Ellis’ production, showing us glimpses of the real man beneath the bravado, and Oscar’s eleventh-hour scena, “The Legacy,” here gets new lyrics, now a straight-from-the-heart ballad, “Because of Her.” The other characters still treat Oscar as a monstre sacré, and in the twenty-first century, when we’re more likely to watch Barrymore on a hand-held personal device than on a vast silver screen, audiences arguably are more comfortable with a somewhat smaller scale.
As the religious fanatic Letitia Primrose, Mary Louise Wilson gives a sly performance with scarcely a clue that “She’s a Nut,” not even attempting to duplicate the demented-pixie quality that the first Primrose, Imogene Coca, brought to almost everything she did. Really, Wilson’s Big Edie in Grey Gardens was nuttier by far, and thus it’s easy to see how Oscar and his cohorts fall for her story. The payoff is tremendous, though, and even the audience may be surprised when the truth comes out and Primrose is chased through the train, affording Wilson a couple of moments I won’t spoil for you — but I’ll treasure them forever.
As Lily’s lunkheaded boyfriend, Karl isn’t quite as acrobatic as enduring legend maintains that his predecessor, Kevin Kline, was — but he’s light on his feet and very funny. In Mark Linn-Baker and Michael McGrath (as Oscar’s sidekicks), and in Jim Walton (the original Frank Shepherd from Merrily We Roll Along, here as Conductor Flanagan), we get the definition of luxury casting, and they’re all marvelous. And the tap-dancing Porters — Rick Faugno, Richard Riaz Yoder, Phillip Attmore, and Drew King — raise the roof in every one of their numbers, expertly choreographed by Warren Carlyle. Indeed, on Friday night, the Porters rivaled Chenoweth herself for the title of audience favorite, eliciting enthusiastic responses again and again.
Operatic: A sextet about a contract.
Chenoweth, Gallagher, Wilson (foreground);
Linn-Baker, McGrath, Karl (background).
My own favorites, though, were Ellis** and music director Kevin Stites, who kept the entire show as fizzy, fleet, and fun as it is faithful: I can’t imagine anyone doing a better job with this material. It’s a complex show, after all, at once invoking and spoofing long-ago show-biz traditions, not only Broadway’s. Oscar and Lily over-inflate their petty dramas to grand-operatic proportions, with allusions to everything from Lucia to Faust to Tristan. Coleman’s music both celebrates and mocks their grandiosity, and Comden & Green apply the same mixture of sass and encyclopedic knowledge that elevated their work in collaborations as diverse as Singin’ in the Rain and the Revuers’ operetta parody, “Baroness Bazooka.”
Much of that tradition is lost to modern audiences: the sources of nostalgia in 1978 are relics of ancient history in 2015. Whether they come to this revival of On the Twentieth Century having seen the original production, whether they merely listened to the cast album, or whether they spent seven years immersed in the material as they researched Madeline Kahn’s biography,* they’ll find plenty to please them.
And if On the Twentieth Century is a “classic,” worthy of revival, then it’s got to have meaning today, and the roles can’t belong to any one performer: not Madeline, not Judy Kaye, not Kristin Chenoweth. In that sense, it’s completely unfair to compare the present production and performances to the originals — and you should ignore just about everything I’ve written here.
*NOTE: Okay, I may be the only person who came to 42nd Street with that last particular credential. But bear in mind that, before Friday night, I’d never seen this show.
**Ellis also directed Madeline in her last stage appearance, a reading of Jerry Herman’s Dear World at the Roundabout, in 1998.