Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace

When the musical comedy On the Twentieth Century opened on Broadway in 1978, it quickly became notorious for its Variety review: “It’s ominous when an audience leaves a musical whistling the scenery.” That scathing comment on composer Cy Coleman’s inadequate music took concise note of the production’s great strength–the set by Robin Wagner, which impressively (and expensively) re-created the luxury and movement of the famous Twentieth Century Limited railroad train, the setting for the musical as well as for its stage and film antecedents.

The current revival of On the Twentieth Century at Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace boasts nothing as lavish as the glossy art deco design featured on Broadway (and in the touring production that came to Chicago a few seasons later). Thomas M. Ryan’s set is impressive, to be sure: an attractive and clever network of panels slide on and off the stage to depict by turns a sprawling old theater, the high-arched interior of Union Station, and the interior and exterior of the train (including a brief glimpse of the engine heading directly at the audience). But lavish it’s not; this set doesn’t dominate the production as Wagner’s did.

How then does the show stand up as a piece of writing? It’s seldom been produced over the past ten years–its big cast and extravagant technical requirements take it beyond the budgets of most regional theaters–and its current revival generated considerable interest because of the success of Coleman’s current Broadway hit City of Angels. Is On the Twentieth Century a neglected masterwork whose brilliance was buried under Broadway glitz? some wondered.

The answer is no, not by a long shot. To be sure, On the Twentieth Century is an ambitious musical effort. Coleman’s previous works mark him as, at best, a clever tunesmith whose background as a jazz pianist (including numerous stints in Chicago at the old London House) made him particularly adept at turning out sizzling, aggressive songs like “I’ve Got Your Number,” from Little Me, and the classic “Big Spender,” from Sweet Charity. Those shows were written in the early and mid-60s, when Coleman stood alongside such creators of glossy jazz-influenced pop as Henry Mancini and Burt Bacharach. But in later efforts, even the commercially successful Seesaw and I Love My Wife, Coleman failed to come up with similarly memorable songs; and as shows such as Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, and even A Chorus Line opened up new musical areas, Coleman may have been looking for a new direction.

In On the Twentieth Century, he aspired to operetta; the score is full of elaborate solo, ensemble, and choral numbers written for big, operatic voices. But Coleman seems to have been so preoccupied with showing off his compositional technique that he didn’t get around to writing very interesting material. For all its complexity the music sounds banal. The lyrics by adapters Betty Comden and Adolph Green–writers known for their wit and quirkiness–are similarly bland. Since their collaborations with Leonard Bernstein (On the Town, Wonderful Town) show them to be quite capable of accommodating an ambitious composer, it seems Comden and Green were stymied by Coleman’s musical dullness; the lyrics, like the music, are effortful exercises in structure.

Still, all is not lost. For On the Twentieth Century is adapted from one of the funniest plays in American theater–Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s 1932 show-business comedy Twentieth Century. And the musical’s authors wisely chose not to stray too far from their source (itself an adaptation of an unproduced script by Charles Bruce Millholland called The Napoleon of Broadway). Comden and Green’s script crackles with its own juicy variations on Hecht and MacArthur’s screwball sarcasm and oddball characters, and it’s an invigorating combination.

In a nutshell, which is where it belongs, On the Twentieth Century tells of a flamboyant producer, Oscar Jaffe, a satiric composite of such 1920s big shots as David Belasco and Jed Harris (with a touch of David Merrick thrown in by the musical’s adapters). On the skids and on the run, the heavily in debt Jaffe literally jumps aboard the Twentieth Century Limited, pursuing movie star Lily Garland in an effort to convince her to star in a new play about Mary Magdalen that will mark his Broadway comeback. (“They don’t write dialogue like that anymore,” says Jaffe as he peruses the Bible for plot ideas.) Jaffe had discovered Lily back when she was Mildred Plotka, shaped her into a star, and become her lover. Now she wants nothing to do with him, preferring the more glamorous surroundings of filmland and the regular “crunchings” she gets in the arms of her beefy boyfriend, male starlet Bruce Granit.

Of course, Oscar recaptures Lily–but only after a couple of acts’ worth of farcical floundering and tempestuous temper tantrums generated by the high-octane collisions between these two cockeyed narcissists. For extra measure, there are zany Letitia Peabody Primrose, a religious fanatic obsessed with other people’s “dirty doings”; Owen and Oliver, Oscar’s partners in slime; an over-the-hill diva, Imelda Thornton; an adulterous congressman and his payrolled playmate; and a chorus of tap-dancing porters.

In Travis L. Stockley’s spiffy and energetic production at Drury Lane, Paula Scrofano’s Lily is the main attraction; it’s a great role, equal parts romantic ingenue and crackpot character, and Scrofano’s gaudily ornamented performance makes the most of it. She’s also fully up to the coloratura demands of Lily’s music, which shifts ranges as mercurially as Lily shifts moods; her long second-act showpiece “Babette,” in which Lily fantasizes herself playing Mary Magdalen as written by Somerset Maugham, is magnificent.

In white cloak and fedora, tall, thin John Reeger cuts a dapper but not entirely satisfactory figure as Oscar; though he’s quite charming in the broadly comic parts, Reeger’s not convincing in the character’s romantic moments, and his wobbly baritone goes painfully out of tune every time he holds a long note. Peggy Roeder cuts up with comic aplomb as Letitia; Alene Robertson has juicy fun as the past-her-prime star Imelda falling apart at an audition; and able support is provided by Sean Grennan as Bruce Granit, Bill Busch and Don Forston as Owen and Oliver, and Dale Morgan as the congressman. Musical director Tom Sivak capably leads a talented chorus through the technically challenging score, and the tap-dancing porters–Randy Bichler, Tedd Greenwood, Kenny Ingram, and Jeff Parker–are sparkling. On the Twentieth Century is very much a performers’ vehicle; if it doesn’t really go anywhere, the company on board is quite diverting for the duration of the ride.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.