Scott Ellis’s dazzling production of “On the Twentieth Century” looks like one of those legendary Broadway musicals that exists largely in our collective memory of great shows we never saw. Like those phantom productions, this 1978 tuner comes with a fine pedigree (book & lyrics by Comden & Green, music by Cy Coleman), has been mounted in high style and is performed with manic energy by a super cast toplined by charismatic stars Kirsten Chenoweth and Peter Gallagher. For a lot of us, this is the show of our dreams.
In the 1930s, train travel was a glamorous, romantic adventure — exactly the tone that’s set at the top of the show when a singing chorus of stylishly costumed (by the inspired William Ivey Long) first-class passengers arrive at Union Station in Chicago to board the fabled Twentieth Century Limited bound for New York. This is “the aristocrat of locomotive trains,” we’re informed, “the luxury liner” of the rails, “the eighth wonder of the world.”
All the period design elements are in place on David Rockwell’s snazzy Art Deco set: the bullet-headed train engine, the shiny passenger cars, the puffs of steam from the mighty engine, the stainless steel accents, even the sleek typefaces. A liveried train conductor (Jim Walton, looking spiffy) and four sensational singing-tap-dancing-showstopping porters (precision drilled by choreographer Warren Carlyle) get the blood racing in a title song that welcomes passengers aboard for the 16-hour journey.
The only travelers who aren’t caught up in all the excitement are Oliver Webb (Mark Linn Baker) and Owen O’Malley (Michael McGrath), general manager and press agent for a theatrical director and producer whose last production bombed in Chicago. This terrific pair of comic sidekicks are running for their lives from the marooned theater company (“Stranded”) and the pack of angry investors who lost their shirts on the show.
Their “noted” producer (noted primarily for the turkeys he produces), Oscar Jaffee (Gallagher in a good-looking suit and with a maniacal gleam in his eye), climbs aboard at the last minute, full of grandiose plans for a comeback (“I Rise Again”). This egomaniacal impresario, said to be based on the flamboyant Broadway producer David Belasco, has no play, no company and no money. But he does have a scheme — to convince Lily Garland (the inimitable Chenoweth), his former lover and currently a major movie star, to headline his next Broadway show. And you’ll never guess who just got on the train and is in the next compartment.
The plot is pure screwball comedy — the go-to comic idiom during the dismal days of the Depression — with some classic farce moves for broader chuckles. Helmer Ellis (“You Can’t Take It With You”) must have directed with a slide rule in one hand and a stopwatch in the other, because the show moves like clockwork and no one even looks out of breath.
The madcap comic pace puts the major pressure on Oscar. With complete ruination his only other option, he frantically scrambles to elude his creditors, woo Lily away from her movie-star lover Bruce Granit (Andy Karl, putting up a very funny fight), dream up an irresistible idea for a show, and charm crazy old Letitia Peabody Primrose (a somewhat subdued Mary Louise Wilson) into bankrolling the production. All that between Chicago and New York.
As the character with the most desperate needs, Oscar does most of the running around, and the strong physical performance from Gallagher (who plays another all-flash-no-cash producer on HBO’s “Togetherness”) captures his maniacal energy. He and his flunkies coordinate their hysteria in “Sign, Lily, Sign,” a wonderful slapstick fugue in which their pleas are countered by Karl’s equally excitable Bruce, who keeps running into slamming doors.
But Lily is the show’s magnet, even when she’s just standing in the spotlight posing — a posture that makes Chenoweth purr. In fact, everything this egocentric diva does makes her purr. Every move becomes a grand gesture, every emotion a grand passion, every inconvenience a grand tragedy. Nothing is outside Chenoweth’s comic skills or beyond the range of that amazing coloratura voice. She loves Lily — and Lily loves her back.
The songs for this merry, madcap show are largely novelty numbers built to keep the action whirling. But the clownish Oscar is finally stopped in his tracks by the realization that he truly, honestly, sincerely loves Lily, and Gallagher makes beautiful work of that moment in “Because of Her.” Not that we haven’t seen it coming, of course, most explicitly in “Our Private World,” a lovely romantic duet for Lily and Oscar sung for real by Chenoweth and Gallagher in Act One.
This is the kind of slaphappy musical comedy that doesn’t pretend to have a brain in its head. But whenever the comic antics become too lightheaded, it’s worth remembering that the plays by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur that were the original sources for this show were written during the Depression, when people were dying for a laugh.