Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Twentieth Century Dazzles; 'Wagon' Rolls Forward

This year Broadway is having a love affair with grand revivals and musicals based on stories from other sources, most notably earlier plays, movies and books. Recently, two road-themed revivals opened.

On the Twentieth Century with book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and music by Cy Coleman is a big, madcap musical that's part operetta, part farce and part screwball comedy. The story involves the behind-the-scenes relationship between Lily, a temperamental actress and Oscar, a bankrupt theatre producer. On a luxury train traveling from Chicago to New York (The Twentieth Century), Oscar tries to cajole the glamorous Hollywood star into playing the lead in his new, but not-yet-written drama, and perhaps to rekindle their romance.
Comden and Green reportedly based the musical on three works: the 1934 Howard Hawks film Twentieth Century; the original 1932 play of the same name by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur; and Hecht's and MacArthur's inspiration, Charles Bruce Millholland's unproduced play about his experiences working for theater producer David Belasco, Napoleon of Broadway.
The musical debuted on Broadway in 1978 and now, after 37 years, has returned thanks to a spectacular new production from the Roundabout Theater Company starring Krstin Chenoweth, Peter Gallagher, Andy Karl, Mark Linn-Baker and Mary Louise Wilson.
On the Twentieth Century teems with giddy appeal from the toe-tapping opening scene right on through to the celebratory closing number as we whisk along on the art-deco inspired train that defined luxe rail travel between two great cities long before the jet age. And the train (which dominates the stage) is a big part of the action as are numerous singing and dancing members of the chorus.
For the principals, this is a tough show to sing because huge parts of it are sung-through and much of it is done in the style of Sgmund Ronberg and Rudolf Friml. That's the way Cy Coleman wrote it. He wanted it to be a comic pop opera. But the variation of high and low notes and breathless pace of the songs make it hard for even the best actors and singers to master. Indeed, Madeline Kahn dropped out of the original Broadway production after a few weeks with vocal chord problems and Peter Gallagher missed several previews in the current production due to a sinus infection.
The show can play havoc with your pipes, not to mention your muscles, joints and bones since there's a good deal of physical comedy throughout.
But now the entire fine cast is in place and all are at the top of their game, so much so that On the Twentieth Century positively glistens with the look and feel of a certifiable Broadway smash.
Chenoweth and Gallagher are superb together in a bravura display of clashing theatrical egos. Their timing is impeccable and they're clearly having fun. Much like the characters in Kiss Me Kate, they simply don't understand where the stage ends and real life begins; it's all a crazy jumble.
As the dashing, ambitious, young and virile "other man," Andy Karl seems surprisingly naive one minute and positively scheming the next. You know that Chenoweth will not trust him but you can still understand the animal attraction.
Mark Linn-Baker and Michael McGrath are spot-on as Gallagher's assistants, like two fast-talking Runyonesque raconteurs. And as the nutty Letitia Peabody Primrose, Marie Louise Wilson gives us another memorable performance in a role that was heretofore owned by Imogene Coca.
This show is a delightful confection -- a wild ride into the hearts, minds (and over-sized egos) of some of the zaniest characters you'll ever meet. And it's all carried off with great panache!
And, one more thing: Peter Gallagher has the best hair on Broadway.

Just about a dozen blocks north of 42nd Street (where the Twentieth Century holds forth), City Center's Encores Series recently presented another overdue revival, Lerner and Lowe's Paint Your Wagon. Here, however we're talking about an original story written for the stage by by Alan J. Lerner himself. The show takes on the wild days of America's move west in search of gold,
The story centers on a miner and his daughter and follows the lives and loves of the people in a mining camp in California. The music in this show is melodic and unforgettable including popular songs such as Wand'rin' Star, I Talk to the Trees, They Call the Wind Maria and the title song.
A huge cast performed Paint Your Wagon with the City Center Orchestra up on stage providing the lush sound that is a hallmark of these shows.
Paint Your Wagon is a robust American story - a show that captures America's sense of adventure and promise. It's the sort of full-throated show (with rich, manly choral singing) that we don't see enough of anymore. And it delivers a powerful message of openness and understanding without being the least bit preachy. 
One of our favorite Broadway stars, Keith Carradine, played Ben Rumson, the gruff, tough-talking father with a tender heart. Alexandra Socha played his daughter, Jennifer who falls for Julio Valveras, played by Justin Guarini. Carradine set just the right tone as the man born under a wandering star and torn between his family and his dreams. Socha's character required her to search and mature in the course of the play and she proved more than up to the task. As for Guarini, his role gave him ample opportunity to show off his extraordinary vocal talents which were on brilliant display in numbers such as I Talk to the Trees and Carino Mio. It's clear Guarini is mastering his craft and emerging as a major talent. And lets not forget Nathaniel Hackmann who delivered They Call the Wind Maria -- a real show-stopper. Hackmann is a formidable presence.
Add to this the incredible dance sequences inspired by the original Agnes deMille choreography, and you have  the makings of a classic.
While Paint Your Wagon was not a huge hit for Lerner and Lowe when it debuted in 1951, it has endured because it contains those lasting elements of a great American musicals: story, characters and song woven together by a Big Dream.
The show also forces us to slow down and consider the power of our shared heritage -- who we are, what we're all about and where we're headed.
An album of the show will be produced with the City Center cast. Let's hope a long-running Broadway production follows!

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