Premiering at Chicago’s Goodman Theater, wispy new jukebox tuner “Turn of the Century” floats along on a thin time-traveling premise and a series of occasionally cute quips. But at this stage of its development the show — from “Jersey Boys” book writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice and master musical helmer Tommy Tune, with a string of popular American songs by various composers and lyricists — feels throughout like a lead-in searching for its payoff.
In the opening scene, set at a music executive’s posh Manhattan party on Dec. 31, 1999, vocalist Dixie Wilson (Rachel York) arrives hoping for a big break, only to discover that her pianist will be Billy Clark (Jeff Daniels), the guy who recently jilted her. And if that’s not bad enough, her song choice (“Twisted” by Annie Ross and Wardell Gray, as in “My analyst told me that I was right out of my head…”) doesn’t really qualify as celebratory fare.
Attempting simultaneously to console and seduce her, Billy asks her to dance as the clock chimes in the new millennium. But instead of moving forward, Billy and Dixie are transported back to January 1, 1900, a fact we’re informed of by the large, semi-circular LED display that serves as a proscenium in Walt Spangler’s spare set design.
Brickman and Elice barely bother to advance an explanation here — there’s no magic fortune telling machine, nor do the characters drink anything funny or conjure special spirits, nor are we informed of a total eclipse of the sun. Instead, there’s some talk about how time is like a fabric, and this is just a rip in it.
Billy quickly embraces the situation, determining that the two will introduce the greatest songs of the 20th century and claim credit for them. Dixie is hesitant to go along, but after making a splash with “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” she succumbs to the pleasures of superstardom. Helped by Dona Granata’s elaborate and elegant costume designs, and by choreographer Noah Racey’s clever negotiation between contemporary and period attitudes, that song comes off strongly enough. But it’s one of very few full-blown numbers in the show. The energy quickly dissipates with a long medley of song shards, juxtaposing period-style entertainments with popular songs — the best example is a line-up of showgirls singing a bit of “I Am Woman.”
That medley demonstrates the fun that could be had here. But these jokes fly by, and rather than recognizing that the premise’s value might come from slowing down, savoring the songs and spotlighting the performance possibilities of the odd context, Brickman and Elice hurry us on to the less satisfying focus of Billy and Dixie’s formulaic romance, or the machinations of a jealous songwriter to solve the mystery of their sudden appearance. That plot point feels especially half-hearted, promising a bit of farce or screwball comedy but delivering nothing.
Feeling guilty after befriending the 12-year-old Irving Berlin (Jonah Rawitz), whose future portfolio they have ransacked, Dixie decides she’s had enough just as she’s about to reinvent the Broadway musical with a premature performance of “Annie Get Your Gun.” We see the ensemble lined up for a big number, we hear what a great song “There’s No Business Like Show Business” is, but all we get are the references.
If the emotional beats worked, this might not be a problem, but even the very fine Daniels (who acquits himself competently, if not especially tunefully, with the songs) and York can’t conjure significant empathy for these characters. The thematic contemplations here feel as inchoate as the initial plot device. While considerations of the importance of money and fame and the forging of one’s own identity play a role in the show, they do so only in an insincere way.
Brickman and Elice change the theatrical rules as they go, allowing a touch of narration, or having Dixie and Billy sing songs reflective of their own inner drama. But the effort to deepen the characters feels uncertain, inconsistent, and finally cliche.
Ultimately, “Turn of the Century” puts forth an odd contradiction — the show feels both rushed and hesitant at the same time. It’s important to acknowledge that while the show currently seems riddled with missed opportunities, missing opportunities represents a superior status to not having any in the first place.
Perhaps the most telling moment comes at the very end, when the LED display informs us it’s time for “The Grand Finale,” and all we get is a limp curtain call. While the book needs work, the quickest route to improving this show might be to follow through on seemingly the most achievable of tasks — pick a couple more great songs and let Tune create more large-scale numbers.