REVIEW: On the Twentieth Century - 2015 Broadway Cast

Recording CoverThere are two words that sum up why the new Broadway cast recording of On the Twentieth Century is a welcome new release: Kristin Chenoweth. As Lily Garland, the scene-stealing comic soprano diva, Chenoweth, in a role she was born to play, tears up the stage and this recording of the 1978 musical in its first-ever Broadway revival. Whether happily chewing on scenery or casting off high notes as effortlessly as breathing, Chenoweth is the main reason why this frothy revival works.

The original cast recording of On the Twentieth Century has always held a special spot in my playlist. The show itself is rarely produced as it requires fairly elaborate staging, but its Tony Award-winning 1930s-inspired pastiche score by Cy Coleman and Betty Comden and Adolph Green is a treasure trove of hummable melodies, and the original cast was top-notch and included John Cullum, Madeline Kahn, Kevin Kline, and Imogene Coca who put their indelible stamps on their roles.

The show is pure madcap fun and takes place on a train (named the 20th Century) on its 16-hour journey from Chicago to New York as down-on-his-luck theatrical producer Oscar Jaffe (a wonderfully voiced Peter Gallagher) tries to woo back his former star, Lily Garland (Chenoweth), so that he can finally score another theatrical success. Throw in Garland’s vainglorious lover Bruce Granit (the hilarious Andy Karl) and a wacky religious nut (played by Mary Louise Wilson) and the stage is set for hijinks.

The laugh-out-loud mayhem that transpires on stage is less well captured on disc; rather the star of this two-disc recording (the original recording was just a single disc) is the gorgeous score. Lily is given one vocally pyrotechnical number after another and Chenoweth delivers the goods and then some. From "Veronique" where we see how Lily develops from her hilariously humble beginnings as Mildred Plotka to the star she is now to "Never" in which she channels all of her hatred for Oscar into stratospheric trills, Coleman's operetta-infused songs are simply delightful.

While I could go on and on about Chenoweth, her co-stars more than hold their own. Gallagher, woefully passed over for a Tony nomination for his performance here, is outstanding in his many numbers especially his opening "I Rise Again" and the show’s big love duet "Our Private World." Mark Linn-Baker and Michael McGrath are Jaffe’s bumbling sidekicks and sing well in silly numbers like "Five Zeros." As Letitia Primrose, the crazy religious fanatic on the train, Mary Louise Wilson is kooky enough, but pales in comparison with the part’s original creator Imogene Coca.

Despite the superb talent assembled for this production, the double-cd length of this recording is a bit of a mixed blessing. It’s wonderful to have the show’s previously unrecorded music such as the funny "Indian Maiden’s Lament," various reprises, and some new extended dance music (arranged by David Krane) but with so much extra space, there are also long tracks of non-underscored dialogue, which despite providing some plot, come off like excerpts from a dull radio play. (Comden and Green won the Tony for best book for a musical, but it’s not their sharpest work.)

The biggest disappointment with this recording and production is the lamentably small orchestra (here arranged by Larry Hochman). With only 13 musicians in the pit, the orchestra size falls far short of the original production’s 20-plus members that featured a fuller string section and a harp to boot. Some shows can withstand such instrumental downsizing, but Coleman’s rich, lush score is sorely diminished and for those who know the original, the sound here often sounds thin. Indeed the show’s dazzling and witty overture, one of my personal favorites as it’s made to mimic a train picking up speed, underwhelms here, its fun ending with train toots and clanging bells now masked and overshadowed by the overly busy sound of the show's tap dancing porters.

When all is said and done, it is nice to have another recording of this neglected classic, and especially to have a permanent record of Chenoweth’s showstopping performance. Great singing aside, though, the original cast recording won’t be leaving my playlist any time soon.


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