Desperately trying to resuscitate his career and escape Chicago creditors, theatrical impresario Oscar Jaffee hops the Twentieth Century streamliner train for New York. In the next door sleeper resides his former muse turned Hollywood superstar Lily Garland.
In the 1978 Broadway and 1980 London productions there was orchestral sweep and solid grandeur in the fittings of the train, the jazz age costumes, and the panorama of scenery and effects as ‘in flight across the night America the beautiful rolls by’. This fitted with the witty script and inventiveness of the Betty Comden and Adolph Green lyrics, in what would be their last major success, crowning a career stretching back to Singin’ in the Rain and On The Town. Written the year before the shape of the popular musical was shifted for ever by Sweeney Todd and Evita, On The Twentieth Century belongs in that ‘last great traditional book musical’ category and still needs the production values of its genre.
Ryan McCabe’s production at the Union follows another superb Comden and Green show, Bells Are Ringing, and invites unfortunate contrast. Whereas Bells looked ready for an immediate West End transfer (and may yet make the leap when theatres come free in the spring) Twentieth Century serves more as a memo to producers with deeper pockets to say what a great script and brilliant Cy Coleman score it has.
Unfortunately not in the hands of this band where a misguided MD has set it for four saxophones and a piano, thereby burying one of the best and most symphonically seamless overtures in musical theatre.
Not that the performances are poor - quite the reverse - Rebecca Vere shines as Lily and sings both the operetta and the show tunes with class, although Kathryn Evans in the 1997 chamber production at the Bridewell was more overtly comic. Valda Aviks infuses the mad philanthropist Mrs Primrose with charm and cunning and her appearances are all a delight. The ironic casting of diminutive Howard Samuels as the towering knight of Broadway Oscar Jaffee may test you more. He’s funny and sings accurately but something powerful was missing, at least from the preview performance.
Since the original boasted a cast of about 45, it’s hard to believe this is performed by just 11 because they really do fill the stage with all the principals sharing the roles of the ensemble. With the inevitable doubling and trebling some of the smaller characterizations are necessarily a bit cartoony, but as Jaffe’s longsuffering henchmen, Matt Harrop and particularly the Captain Pugwash-like Chris David Storer are first rate.
The scant set and indifferent lighting show up the shabbiness of the venue, and the confines of a train don’t really allow for elaborate dance choreography, although Drew McOnie’s movement and staging was really well-executed by the enthusiastic cast. The home made special effects, including a shoe-brush-on-tea-tray steam train, and torch lit transfiguration, are superb.
At Tuesday’s opening, we were thrilled to discover that The Stage critic Mark Shenton is as big a fan of this musical as we are, although somewhat better at suppressing his desire to sing along. It ran 2 hours 45: the show needs tightening, and if licensing allows, judicious cuts.
On The Twentieth Century continues at the Union Theatre, until 15 January 2011 (no performances 24/12-3/1) Tuesday-Saturday at 7.30 and Saturdays and Sundays also at 2.30. Tickets typically £16.50 (£13.50 concessions). Box Office 020 7261 9876, or with a fee from TicketSource.