Review – On the Twentieth Century – Union Theatre


On Tuesday I had the good fortune to be guested into the first preview of the Union Theatre production of “On the Twentieth Century” (this review site is finally doing SOMETHING for me, though I would have surely gone on my own nickel anyway). I have been pleased again and again by the Union’s revival of golden-age American musicals: would this be another hit?

I didn’t realize until I cozied up to the program that this musical, unlike Annie Get Your Gun or Bells Are Ringing wasn’t so much from that golden age as from, well, the last of the tail end of the silver age of American musicals. In fact, it’s almost a contemporary of Xanadu, the nail-in-the-coffin for movie musicals, though the music’s flavor has, I don’t know how to put it, a flavor of Sondheim to it. Rather than the bounce-along-to-it, upbeat tones of Irving Berlin or Jule Styne, the songs were full of harmony without the hooks; but still, the lyrics (and the book) were witty and drew your attention into the show rather than just wasting space like an unused coat rack, poking into the air waiting for something interesting to happen. So this is the structure we had to build the evening upon; not something I’d consider a true classic musical, but a revival of a show that had been gathering dust for a while; only we’re talking bell-bottoms rather than gingham square-dancing skirts.

Still (thankfully), the play was set in a situation that had all of the feel of a classic: in the 30s, on a train, with the ever-popular clash of Broadway versus Hollywood. (I thought it was kind of 42nd Street hashed with Singing in the Rain and a bit of A Star Is Born only very tongue-in-cheek rather than sincere or depressing.) Oscar Jaffee, a failing, manic Broadway producer (Howard Samuels) is on the train with the woman he brought to fame (as depicted in a delicious audition vignette) some five years or so before, who’s left New York for an Academy-award winning West Coast career. Now that he’s down on his luck, he wants to take her burnished Hollywood star and use Lily Garland (Rebecca Vere) to light up his next show. And, well, maybe it just might be that there’s a little bit of romance between them … or there once was, but the chemistry is still VERY much there. It all has a solid 30s feel to it. However, the actual era of the show comes through in the way it plays out – Lily is very independent, and the show doesn’t end on a golden-era formula “happy” wrapup (though given the way shows are sweetened up these days to make them more “palatable” I’m guessing we’ve taken a step backwards since 1978).

However, the modern era gives this show room to have a lot more fun than you would have got in the days of Hays code – Lily gets very frisky with her silver screen co-star Bruce Granit (Robbie Scotcher) and even engages in some furry-like behavior with him; and there’s a postmodern-y “metasong” commenting on the “playness” of what we’re watching, as three different characters waylay Oscar at most unexpected times to tell him “I’ve Written a Play!”

One thing I was very surprised to see (in the more culturally conservative 21st century) is people making fun, heartily, of religious people, as one of the key members of the show is “Mrs. Primrose,” who is described, in my favorite part of they play, as “a nut” (which is much more gentle than “fanatic” – ah, the good old days). There’s a scene where everyone is freaking out that religious stickers are being placed all over the train and everyone on it: when they appeared, I was immediately struck with a hankering to get one of those stickers myself (they were very Temple of the Golden Dawn). I got my chance when Mrs. Primrose (Valda Aviks) broke into her big solo, “Repent,” in which she travelled across the stage singing things like, “In every town we’re passing through/Beneath a bush, inside the zoo/I know there’s dirty doings going on.” She came close to me with her fist full of stickers, and I stuck my hand out …. she looked me in the eye and said, “Like you I once was wild/Men shouted, “Oh you kid”/A life of shame I led/And dirty doings did,” then pasted a sticker on my hand. My night was complete! Later Aviks showed she was a real comic genius as she mugged her way behind the plethora of actors both looking for her and singing about looking; the faces she made as she mocked every word they said just had me in stitches.

Really, Ariks was just the highlight of the show for me; I found act one dragged a bit, and while the singing and music was fine, I wasn’t blown away (and at about 100 minutes it was a LONG first act). But the screwball comedy shenanigans and faster pace of act two really “brought it home” for me, and at the end, I felt the evening was a success. This may not be a “must see” musical, but I think in a time of year when it’s almost nothing but panto panto panto, an trip to see “On the Twentieth Century” would be just the thing to knock the cobwebs out. God knows it had more verve in one number than I saw in an entire evening of Sondheim’s Passion!

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Tuesday, December 14th, 2010. On The 20th Century continues through Saturday January 15th, 2011.)

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