Saturday, March 14, 2015

On the Twentieth Century

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.)

Unfortunately, that this revival is a pale recreation becomes evident with the very first notes of the small orchestra. On the Twentieth Century has a superb, exciting overture. The revival provides a taste of the excitement, but it's a thin and tinny taste. The cast is also too small. It includes seven fewer people than the original, which makes a difference again and again in crowd scenes and big musical numbers.

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)


daringrod said...

Thank you for this review. I saw the original touring company when it landed in Los Angeles, with Coca, Kaye and Hudson. The production was HUGE. Thank you specifically for bringing up the two aspects of this show that I remember most fondly: the overture and the Pullman porters. The overture from this show should be the textbook for composers.

As for the porters, "Life is Like a Train" is one of my favorite show tunes. I saw a couple press photos from this production and was taken so far aback by the casting choices made for this show's porters. I have no issue with non-traditional casting but there are some cases where taking that route diminishes the full importance (even if unwritten) of a character. (sigh)

Once again thank you for being the eyes for those of us who know of what you speak but cannot see this revival.

Wendy Caster said...

The whole nontraditional casting thing is interesting. I often like it. It often adds to a show. This time it detracted.

Thanks for taking the time to write!

Anonymous said...

I think that one ought to be careful about making assumptions about ethnicity. You are factually incorrect when you state that 3 of the 4 porters are "white guys."

Wendy Caster said...

That's a fair observations. I should indeed have been more careful.

It doesn't, however, negate the fact that they weren't all African-American.