The dynamite performances delivered by Chris Warren Gilbert and Jill Van Velzer in Musical Theatre West’s Reiner Reading Series concert staged reading of the 1978 Tony winner On The Twentieth Century are just two of the many reasons for someone, anyone, to give the Cy Coleman, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green gem the fully-staged SoCal revival it so richly deserves.
There’s also Comden and Green’s delicious Tony-winning book, based on Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s still popular 1932 stage comedy Twentieth Century, its 1934 movie adaptation, and a unpublished play by somebody you’ve never heard of.
On The Twentieth Century (the titular train is the luxurious Chicago-to-New York Twentieth Century Limited) revolves around Broadway star-turned-Hollywood goddess Lily Garland (Van Velzer), whose services must be secured asap by Lily’s ex lover, down-on-his-theatrical-luck producer Oscar Jaffe (Gilbert), if his next production is to achieve the hit status his recent flops have lacked.
Accompanying Oscar On The Twentieth Century are his loyal assistants Oliver Webb (Gabriel Kalomas) and Owen O’Malley (Jordan Lamoureux), whose acquaintance we first make when they boot adulterous lovers “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” (Martin Kildare and Ashley Marie Samudio as Senator Grover Lockwood and the much, much younger Emily) from their berth to make room for Oscar.
Lily soon makes a star’s entrance with her movie star beau Bruce Granit (Zachary Ford) and maid Agnes (Jennifer Strattan) in tow.
Also along for the ride are religiously crazed millionairess Letitia Peabody Primrose (Tracy Rowe Mutz), the train’s conductor (William Martinez), a physician named Dr. Lockwood (Richard Gould), a couple of porters (Tyler Matthew Burke and Eric Michael Parker), and assorted passengers played by Jackie Cox, Karenssa LeGear, and Adam Trent, the latter of whom makes an eleventh-hour appearance as Max Jacobs, just one of the many passengers who utter the words “I’ve written a play!” almost as often as Oscar intones “I close the iron door on you!”
On The Twentieth Century’s screwball plot has Oscar, Oliver, and Owen conniving to get Lily’s signature on a contract that will have her portraying none other than “The Magdalene” on Broadway even as Bruce does his darnedest to keep Lily as his onscreen/offscreen love.
Hilarious as its proven plot may be, what truly makes On The Twentieth Century something out of the Broadway ordinary is its Tony-winning Coleman, Comden, and Green score, an honest-to-goodness comic operetta the likes of which Broadway hadn’t seen since the days of Rudolph Friml, Victor Herbert, and Sigmund Romberg. (That only eleven years later Coleman composed the jazz masterpiece City Of Angels makes his 1978 light operatic score all the more remarkable.)
Director David Lamouerux once again once again proved himself a master of the concert staged reading, beginning with an inspired tweaking of the genre’s traditional row-of-chairs setup, turning pairs of seats to face each other train-seating style.
Performances ranged from simply sensational to out-and-out stupendous, the latter applying to stars Gilbert (bombastic perfection as Oscar) and Van Velzer (divalicously divine as Lily), with the one-of-a-kind Mutz (rhymes here with nuts) proving the evening’s scene-stealingest nutcase as Letitia.
Reiner Reading Series regulars (Jordan) Lamoureux and Kalomas made for a marvelously matched comedic duo, with equally zesty supporting work provided by Ford, Trent, Burk, Parker, and above all Martinez as the splashiest of train conductors.
Stage vets Gould and Kildare delivered memorable cameos as did Strattan and Samudio, with LeGear milking every Imelda moment in her scrumptious “Indian Maiden’s Lament” and Cox rounding out the passenger list to delightful effect. (A special treat was the ever more ingenious live sound effects vocalized by individual cast members upon sliding a train door open or closed.)
Full-cast productions numbers were staged with such show-stopping pizzazz that it seems incredible that the entire shebang got rehearsed, teched, and dress-rehearsed in a mere twenty-five hours, with “Veronique,” “Five Zeros,” “Babette,” “She’s A Nut,” and above all the ten-minute masterpiece that is “Sign, Lily, Sign” earning deserved audience cheers.
Ryan O’Connell musical directed to perfection, conducting a Broadway-scale, Broadway-caliber orchestra provided by the Los Angeles Musicians Collective, in addition to stepping into a surprise vocal cameo.
On The Twentieth Century cries out for a major L.A./Orange County revival. In the meantime, those who were present for Musical Theatre West’s one-night-only reading can count themselves the luckiest of people indeed.
Carpenter Center For The Performing Arts, Long Beach.
May 15, 2016