The Wall Street Journal Reviews "On the 20th Century"

The Wall Street Journal Reviews

Sneak a peek at the Wall Street Journal's review of "On the 20th Century"! Tickets for the Broadway musical revival are available here. ‘On the Twentieth Century’ Review: Tied to the Tracks of Delight ‘On the Twentieth Century’ is a revival of a screwball music comedy that will leave you grinning So you’re looking for a good time? Look no more: The Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of “On the Twentieth Century” is the best musical to hit Broadway since “On the Town.” Staged with hurtling éclat by Scott Ellis and featuring a jaw-droppingly virtuosic performance by the amazing Kristin Chenoweth, it’s a fluffy exercise in high-octane pleasure, blessedly devoid of deep thought and certain to satisfy anyone not congenitally po-faced. Originally produced in 1978, “On the Twentieth Century” is a musical version of the same stage play that Howard Hawks turned into the classic 1934 screwball comedy in which John Barrymore and Carole Lombard played a monstrously vain director (played here by Peter Gallagher) and the equally egomaniacal ex-protégée (Ms. Chenoweth) whom he is desperately seeking to sign for his next show. “Twentieth Century” didn’t and doesn’t need improving, but if you’re going to write a commodity musical, this is the way to do it: “On the Twentieth Century” sports a book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and a score by Cy Coleman, which is as close as it gets to a money-back guarantee of professionalism. Coleman’s score is a knowing pastiche of old-fashioned over-the-top operetta, and Ms. Chenoweth, a full-fledged musical-comedy singer who also has rock-solid operatic chops up to and including a gleaming high C, was born to sing it. On top of all that, she’s a stage comedian so accomplished that she can make you laugh without singing a note. It’s as if Beverly Sills and Carol Burnett were the same person. Her talents aren’t unlimited—the 2010 revival of “Promises, Promises” showed that vulnerability is beyond her—but in the right part, which this is, she’s as good as it’s ever gotten on Broadway. This is the kind of performance that will make those lucky enough to have seen it grin with remembered delight decades after the fact. On the debit side, Mr. Gallagher, wonderfully funny though he is, doesn’t sing well enough to hold his own alongside Ms. Chenoweth. I haven’t heard such ill-tuned singing from a Broadway lead since Bill Irwin inflicted his voice on “Bye Bye Birdie.” And Coleman’s score, though effective as a vehicle for the fizzy farce comedy in which his collaborators specialized, is so musically unmemorable that none of the songs is now known outside the context of the show. At his best, Coleman was a top-flight tunesmith, but it takes a genius to write pastiche numbers that are both clever and emotionally compelling. (Stephen Sondheim did it in “Follies,” but he’s Stephen Sondheim.) Finally, the second act is a bit too long for its own good. So no, “On the Twentieth Century” isn’t perfect—but it’ll do quite well enough. Mr. Ellis and choreographer Warren Carlyle make head-spinning magic out of “She’s a Nut,” the 11-o’clock number in which a hundred kinds of farcical hell are unleashed onstage, and David Rockwell’s deco-to-the-max sets look as though they cost as much as the national debt of Grand Fenwick. As for the supporting cast, it features Andy Karl, Mark Linn-Baker and Mary Louise Wilson, all of whom deliver the goods right on time. I can’t remember when two Comden-Green shows last played simultaneously on Broadway. If, like this year’s Tony voters, you’re forced to choose between “On the Town” and “On the Twentieth Century,” I’d go with the former, which is funnier, sweeter, more deeply felt and features a solid-gold score by Leonard Bernstein and the highflying choreography of Joshua Bergasse. But why settle for one great musical revival when you can see two? —Mr. Teachout, the Journal’s drama critic, is the author of “Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington,” which recently received an ASCAP Foundation Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Award. Write to him at tteachout@wsj.com