SoCal musical theater lovers are hereby advised to head on down to San Diego and catch Cygnet Theatre’s heavenly revival of the multiple Tony-winning On The Twentieth Century, not only a once-in-a-blue-moon chance to see the Cy Coleman-Betty Comden-Adolph Green gem but a terrific showcase for local stage stars too often overlooked the city’s higher-profile regional theaters.
Based on Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s still popular 1932 stage comedy Twentieth Century, its 1934 movie adaptation, and an unpublished play by somebody you’ve never heard of, Comden and Green’s Tony-winning book revolves around Broadway star-turned-Hollywood movie goddess Lily Garland (Eileen Bowman), whose services her ex-lover, down-on-his-theatrical-luck producer Oscar Jaffe (director Sean Murray), must secure asap 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 Owen O’Malley (Steve Gunderson) and Olive Webb (Melissa Fernandes), whose acquaintance we first make when they boot adulterous lovers “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” (Lafras le Roux and Amy Perkins as married Senator Grover Lockwood and his working-overtime secretary Anita) from their berth to make room for their boss.
Lily, whom Oscar first happened upon when the then Mildred Plotka taught inept auditioner Imelda (Debra Wanger) a thing or two about how to sell a song, soon makes a star’s entrance with her matinee idol beau Bruce Granit (Michael Cusimano) and maid Agnes (Morgan Carberry) in tow.
Also along for the ride are big-bucks Bible fanatic Letitia Peabody Primrose (Melinda Gilb), Dr. Lockwood, MD (Samantha Wynn Greenstone), and eleventh-hour arrival Max Jacobs (Bryan Banville), just one of the passengers who utter the words “I’ve written a play!” almost as often as Oscar intones the now classic “I close the iron door on you!”
On The Twentieth Century’s screwball plot soon has Oscar, Olive, 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 makes On The Twentieth Century something truly 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 (and about as night-and-day different from Coleman’s jazzy City Of Angels as any two scores could be).
There’s plenty too to make Cygnet’s midsized revival a surefire crowd-pleaser beginning with what in less imaginative hands than director Murray’s might be just another “Overture,” but which now has train conductor Luke H. Jacobs, secretary Banville, and porters Drew Bradford and Trevor Cruse asking the musical question, “Why walk when you can tap tap tap?” to choreographer David Brannen’s infectious dance steps as projection designer Blake McCarty gives us overhead glimpses of the luxurious Twentieth Century Limited as it sets off from Chicago to New York.
“Saddle Up The Horse/On The Twentieth Century” is but the first of Brannen and company’s show-stopping full-cast production numbers, followed by The Vive-La-France ooh-la-la of “Veronique” and later by “She’s A Nut,” an extended sight-gag-filled sequence that has the entire train in search of on-the-lam dingbat Letitia.
And what an art-deco gorgeous train Sean Fanning has given us, his scenic design vibrantly lit by Chris Rynne as are Jeanne Reith’s stunning 1930s costumes, wig-and-makeup designer Peter Herman’s equally spot-on looks and dos, and Bonnie Durbin’s pitch-perfect properties.
On The Twentieth Century sounds great too thanks to musical director Terry O’Donnell and the show’s six-piece orchestra expertly blended with amped vocals by sound designer Dylan Nielsen and audio mixer TJ Fucella, with just-right choo-choo effects inserted along the way.
Still, if there’s anything that will have SoCal audiences giving On The Twentieth Century unanimous raves, it’s its sensational cast, beginning with the hilariously highfalutin Murray and divinely divalicious Bowman in a pair of parts the San Diego treasures were destined to play, the dynamic duo and their equally gifted classmates adding inspired physical bits throughout that would do Lucy and Ricky and Fred and Ethel proud.
Cusimano in particular is a slapstick treat, especially when door after door slams into handsome hunk Bruce’s increasingly dazed-and-confused face, and so is Gilb as the fruitiest of fruitcakes ever to entreat fellow passengers to “Repent.”
Super sidekicks Fernandes and Gunderson have their snappy ‘30s patter down pat, Wanger makes the rib-tickling most of Imelda’s botched “Indian Maiden’s Lament,” and Banville’s flamboyant Max Jacobs gives Murray’s Oscar a run for his grandiosity.
Heel-and-toe-tapping train crewmen Banville, Bradford, Cruse, and Jacobs couldn’t be more delectably fleet of foot, with special snaps to Jacobs’ ever flustered conductor, and Carberry, Greenstone, le Roux, and Perkins each earn their own cheers in character after character and wig after wig.
Craig Campbell is stage manager and Andie Fitch is assistant stage manager. Taylor M. Wycoff is dramaturg. James Darvas, Rachel Hengst, and Alyssa Swann are production assistants, Chad Lee is associate sound designer, and TJ Fucella is audio mixer.
Though star power (Kristin Chenoweth’s and Peter Gallagher’s) inspired Broadway to revive On The Twentieth Century briefly in 2015, major regional stagings are rarer than rare, just one of many reasons to celebrate this unsung musical comedy gem as it is sung (and acted and danced) to absolute perfection down Cygnet way.
Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs St., San Diego. Through April 30. Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30, Fridays at 8:00, Saturdays at 3:00 and 8:00, and Sundays at 2:00 and 7:00. Reservations: 619 337-1525
March 18, 2107
Photos: Ken Jacques