If I hadn't seen the original production of On the Twentieth Century, I suspect I would have been as blown away by the revival as were my co-bloggers Liz and Cameron. But I did see the original, multiple times, and I just can't ignore where the new version falls short. (By the way, I am not of the knee-jerk "the-original-was-better" school of thought. I found the benefit performance of On the Twentieth Century with Marin Mazzie and Douglas Sills to be excellent.)
Then there is the direction. I'm not a fan of Scott Ellis, but he does a good job here. However, Hal Prince did a brilliant job. Ellis's direction occasionally loses laughs, focus, and pacing, and it totally lacks Prince's grace notes and specificity. One example [spoilers]: When the female lead is still Mildred Plotka, and Oscar Jaffe is trying to turn her into a star, he hands her a script and says, "Begin reading." In the original, the next bit happened in three sections. (1) Mildred reads and is lackluster and monotonal.(2) Mildred keeps reading in a monotone, but when she gets to "hear the population shout: save our city" she sings "Save our city" full out and beautifully--and then goes right back to the monotone. (3) Mildred becomes Lily Garland, on stage, playing the role she was reading as Mildred. Part 2 is very funny and also provides a necessary transition between 1 and 3. It's missing in this production, making the scene less funny and throwing off the timing. Another example: Prince had little bits of business going on in the background--other people on the train meeting, talking, going off together. It gave a lovely texture to the show. This may not be Ellis's fault--he may not have enough performers to allow these moments--but whatever the cause, it's a loss. [end of spoilers]
And then there are the performances. It's hard to judge Peter Gallagher, as he was just back from being ill. However, since I paid $95 for my ticket (including fees) and am writing a review, judge I shall. He's good, but he lacks the madness that both John Cullum and Douglas Sills brought to the proceedings. And his singing is okay, which is not good enough. Perhaps when he feels better he will do more justice to the score, but I do wish that they had cast Sills or Marc Kudish in the role.
Kristin Chenoweth is in full-out Kristin Chenoweth mold, which is mostly effective. She sings parts gorgeously, and gets most of her laughs. I think she would have/could have been better ten years ago. As it stands, there is a slight brittleness to her performance, and she is visibly working. (However, it's only fair to mention that the audience adored every note she sang, every word she said, every face she made, every breath she took.) Also, there was zippo chemistry between her and Gallagher.
Andy Karl is pretty good as Bruce, though he is occasionally upstaged by his chest. I guess it's unfair to compare him with Kevin Kline, who was sublime. Kline has an incomparable grace, and he also benefitted from a better director. Ellis's staging of slapstick is too careful and lacks the perfect timing and calibrated insanity that Prince provided.
Mary Louise Wilson is fine as Letitia Primrose, but she's too much of a regular person. Imogene Coca was wonderful, and although I'm not a fan, Joanne Worley was quite good in the benefit production. Both brought wonderfull silliness to everything they did. Coca's was divine silliness; Worley's was coarser. But both gave top-notch musical comedy performances.
And it really, really annoys me that three of the four dancing Pullman porters were white guys. Most Pullman porters were black, and being a Pullman porter was a big deal. Many of the original Pullman porters were ex-slaves, and in the time period of On the Twentieth Century, being a Pullman porter was one of the few routes black men had into the middle class.
So, after all of this complaining, I would still have to say that this is a very good production of On the Twentieth Century. Objectively, I'd probably give it an A-. But subjectively, I'd give it a B. Very good just can't compare with inspired.
(first row mezz, $95 discount ticket with fees)