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Theater Review: "On The Twentieth Century"

“On The 20th Century” plays through April 30, 2017 at Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs Street in Old Town.
Photo credit:
Ken Jacques


The sight of four tap-dancing porters in front of Sean Fanning’s jaw-dropping railroad car scenic design sets you up for Cygnet Theatre’s latest offering –  the musical comedy “On The Twentieth Century,” a visual and auditory treat that traces its inspiration back to the 1930s. Yep, and with all those great costumes by Jeanne Reith.


A 1932 play (by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur) and the 1934 Barrymore/Lombard movie “The Twentieth Century” supply the slight plot about Broadway impresario Oscar Jaffe –  recoiling from yet another flop in Chicago and in desperate need of a hit play – and actress/former lover Lily Garland (Eileen Bowman), who has forsaken Broadway for greener Hollywood pastures. 


Oscar (played by Cygnet Artistic Director Sean Murray) and Lily will meet (not exactly by chance) on the titular train between Chicago and New York City.


Can he convince her to come back and work with him again? 


“Never,” she sings in one of the show’s clever songs by Cy Coleman, with lyrics by the redoubtable team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green.


Oscar will also have to deal with Lily’s hunky new boyfriend Bruce Granit (Michael Cusimano), who likes her movie star status (especially being in her movies) and isn’t much interested in her return to theater.


Also on the train are Oscar’s press agent Owen (Steve Gunderson) and business manager Olive (Melissa Fernandes), who managed to secure the room next to Lily and Bruce, and will spend the rest of the trip adding to the hilarity by trying to keep Oscar’s mood and blood pressure at manageable levels.


Letitia Primrose (the inestimable Melinda Gilb) is a religious nut who made lots of money marketing a drug called Primrose Restoria Pills. Gilb has a wonderful time singing her major song – “Repent” (which advises “an icy shower when you’re feeling warm”) – and slapping labels reading “Repent: the last days are at hand” everywhere she can find a surface.


People put up with Letitia mainly because she is filthy rich, and when she offers to bankroll Oscar’s latest project with Lily, Oscar’s problems seem to be over.


There’s nothing in this show to tax your brain or make you ponder weighty issues. This is theatrical fluff, pure and simple, intended to amuse and entertain. And that it does, in spades. 


Eileen Bowman continues her string of terrific musical comedy portrayals and her self-obsessed Lily provides a great foil for Murray’s autocratic Oscar (well, he would be, if he could get away with it). Murray is a total hoot here.


David Brannen’s sprightly tap-dance choreography seems just right for the time period and attitude here.


Chris Rynne’s lighting does wonders for Fanning’s dual-level set, and Blake McCarty’s projections on the top level add to the atmosphere. Dylan Nielsen’s sound design also sets the mood nicely.


Music Director Terry O’Donnell’s five excellent musicians make plenty of fine music.


And whoever made that train spout steam at the top of the show deserves a mention too.I


fI you’re looking for a little escapist entertainment (who isn’t these days?), get thee to Old Town for an entertaining blast from the past.


The details


“On The 20th Century” plays through April 30, 2017 at Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs Street in Old Town.


Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 3 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.


Tickets: (619) 337-1525 or www.cygnettheatre.com