On the Twentieth Century (American Airlines Theatre – NYC)

I knew going in that I wasn’t going to see Peter Gallagher as Oscar Jaffee in the play as he has been  ill and out of the show for a week now. I didn’t mind that, just so long as I got to see Kristin Chenoweth and the show in general. The CD of the original Broadway cast is one I’ve had in my collection for a long time and not listened to, but I have several friends who have praised the show and score to me over the years. What I saw at today’s matinee was a mixed bag, and I was disappointed.

The show started off sprightly enough with some tap dancing porters (the woman next to me remarked that they were the best part of the show), but much of what the ensemble was saying during the opening number was lost, drowned out by the sound of the orchestra and not well amplified. The sound didn’t improve much throughout, though only the ensemble numbers caused a real problem for me with comprehension.

Kristin has a funny entrance as a mousy accompaniest and a startling costume transformation right in front of the audience, but it sure looks like she’s working hard at it. When she finds the time to relax a bit, as she does in the second act, she’s better, but she often comes off as too intelligent for the material and lacking in whimsy. A few line readings sound distinctly Madeline Kahn-esque, which is unnecessary. Kristin is talented in her own right and shouldn’t feel the need to try to play it as Kahn may have, which is how it all came off as to me. I refrain from saying that she is miscast, but I do think that once she feels more comfortable in the role that she will relax a bit and not come off quite as forced.

James Moye went on for his sixth performance in Gallagher’s part, and he never appears comfortable on stage. He knows his lines and blocking, but I don’t buy him as a conniving producer. He also comes off as forced, like Kristin, and the two have zero chemistry.

Andy Karl plays Kristin’s boyfriend, and he seems to be one of the few people in the play who knows what play he is in! Having seen him in Rocky last year, I knew he was talented, but I was surprised how well he took to the slapstick of this part! He’s handsome, quick, over-the-top in exactly the right way, and understands the tone of the piece. I wonder if Mr. Karl is a glutton for punishment as he has gone from being hit in the boxing ring in Rocky to having his face and body continually attacked by slamming doors in this play! I would be surprised if he doesn’t get a supporting actor Tony nomination for this one.

Mary Louise Wilson plays the dotty Letitia Peabody Primrose with glee and looks like she’s having a great time. She gets a lot of the best laughs as well. Another standout was understudy Ben Crawford playing the small role of the agent Max Jacobs, going on for James Moye (otherwise occupied covering for Peter Gallagher). Ben looks the part with slicked back hair and a cocky grin, and he comes off as completely at ease.

My performance was stopped for an impromptu intermission for about fifteen minutes during the second act number, “She’s a Nut!” The snafu occurred after Mary Louise Wildon rode a miniature train offstage. The stage was dark with no activity, but the music continued. Kristin and Andy ran out to do their part in the song, sang a bit, and then quickly returned to the wings. The music came to an abrupt stop, and we all knew there was a problem. An announcement was made that there was a technical issue and the show would resume shortly. The house lights came on, and a few minutes later the large title screen was brought down, presumably to check whatever element was malfunctioning.

When the show resumed it was with the part in the song with Mary Louise once again riding the miniature train, but this time a large screen came down with lights and moving parts showing the path of the train with the destination constantly changing. Andy and Kristin returned to do their part, with Kristin ad libbing, “I feel like I’ve done this before…” The audience cheered. The rest of the play seemed livelier after that, as if everyone was on high alert and ready for anything. The elaborate “Babette” number was quite well done, but not good enough to redeem the rest of the performance.

I stayed for a brief post-show discussion with the cast (sans Andy Karl and Kristin Chenoweth) and they elaborated on the technical glitch that stopped the show. Apparently the computer that runs the different moving pieces locked up and needed to be restarted, but they were quick to say that at least it wasn’t anything mechanical that broke down. The facilitator of the discussion also pointed out how technically complex the show was and that was one of the reasons it has been so long before being revived. I dunno… The moving train was nice and all, but it was hardly what I would call complex, especially after seeing all of the moving parts in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical and Honeymoon in Vegas.

**/****

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