On the Twentieth Century
Musical Theatre West Reiner Reading Series at University Theatre at California State University Long Beach
Reviewed by Jonas Schwartz
Musical Theatre West has committed a treacherous crime. It chose a rarely produced musical (in LA at least), cast it with stellar actors who have fantastic chemistry, and presented it for one night only for its Reiner Staged Reading Series. That‘s a travesty that hopefully can be remedied with an extended run at a later date, because this production of Cy Coleman and Betty Comden & Adolph Green’s On the Twentieth Century was enchanting.
Based on the 1932 play and film adaptation titled Twentieth Century, which was considered one of the seminal screwball comedies of the 1930s, On the Twentieth Century is a wild, satirical farce about the unstable relationship between Broadway and Hollywood, complete with sliding doors, escalating fights, and hammy personalities.
In it, theater impresario Oscar Jaffe (Chris Warren Gilbert) has hit the skids. He owes substantial sums of money and can’t get a new show produced. He hops aboard a luxurious train, the 20th Century Limited, with his two sycophants, Oliver (Gabriel Kalomas) and Owen (Jordan Lamoureux), because he has discovered that his former protégé, the famous movie star Lily Garland (Jill Van Velzer), will be onboard and in the next compartment. Lily and Oscar despise each other, and their reunion leads to fireworks.
MTW and Musical Theatre Guild perform one-night concerts similar to New York’s popular Encores! series, but Director David Lamoureux‘s staging didn’t feel like a reading. Though the sets were bare-boned, the performances were of the highest caliber and the actors embodied their roles. Gilbert spewed pomposities like the great John Barrymore. He treated every line like it should be digested by the last row of the balcony. He turned every phrase into high drama and bulldozed his co-stars like an egomaniac.
Meeting him halfway, Van Velzer was joyously viperish as the movie star, insecure and apt to overreact. Both are master singers and turned their tongue-twisting numbers into showstoppers. Tracy Rowe Mutz as the daffy religious millionaire Leticia Peabody Primrose was like a mischievous mouse. She scrunched her face in mock menace in “She’s a Nut,” bringing down the house. Kalomas and Lamoureux exploited their facial expressions to resemble the baboons the characters emulate. As the histrionic boy toy, Zachary Ford was a cartoon of the Hollywood pretty boy, aptly vapid and self-impressed.
Coleman and Comden & Green have written their lushest score, utilizing every instrument to evoke the sounds of a train and the waltzes of an old world operetta. The score contains many complicated songs, including a canon for four porters in “Life Is a Train” and a counterpoint for the six leads in “Sextet—Sign, Lily, Sign.” These numbers are not only intricate but also require precision from all the singers. For a cast to sound pitch perfect after minimal rehearsal is tremendous.
For a reading, the sound of the 19-piece orchestra, conducted by musical director Ryan O’Connell was fluid and cohesive, hitting all the bombastic moments, particularly in one of the best overtures written. As well as the orchestra, the ensemble’s vocals sounded like a well-tuned operatic chorus.
On the Twentieth Century should be perennial work for regional theaters. The score is buoyant, the lyrics biting, and the script uproarious. Hopefully, after seeing what a fantastic cast has been assembled by Musical Theatre West, audiences will be able to laugh with Oscar Jaffe and Lily Garland more often.
May 18, 2016
The New American Theatre at The Victory Theatre
Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
Ally Gordon and Jeff Kongs
Photo by Kitty Rose
“Time heals all wounds,” or so goes the adage oft employed as a coping mechanism. In playwright Michael Weller’s dissection of an ultimately doomed relationship, nothing could be further from the truth. Originally published in 1979, this somewhat dated, bittersweet story of an on-again, off-again romance may seem frustrating in its one-sided dramaturgical outcome. And yet, as in real life, not everything ends in happiness.
Paul and Susan, both on soul-searching vacations, meet on a beach in Bali, Indonesia. Some two plus hours later, having spanned nearly 10 years of their lives, Weller’s tale leaves this couple with not much more than they started with. To his credit, director Jack Stehlin certainly doesn’t sugarcoat the proceedings. Were he to have, the result would have shortchanged the spiraling effect that Weller clearly intended.
On the whole, Stehlin is blessed to have actor Jeff Kongs, as Paul, carrying this show from both a dramaturgical as well as performance point of view. Kongs displays a welcome honesty in his scene work, while his skill in relaying Weller’s improvisatory-like monologues is riveting. Whether detailing Paul’s veil-lifting Peace Corps experiences or his second-act indictment of Susan’s marriage-destroying selfishness, his performance is always “in the moment.”
As Susan, Ally Gordon is taxed with the clearly less sympathetic of Weller’s primary roles. Unable to set aside her personal desires for the greater good, Susan’s choices seem mired in subconsciously creating roadblocks between herself and Paul. Although occasionally falling prey to outwardly theatrical demonstrations of her position as this tale’s antagonist, Gordon does a respectable job with this rather unlikeable character, her best work coming in those scenes in which she and Kongs go toe-to-toe.
The rest of the cast, with unremarkably varying degrees of success, fills in the cracks of Weller’s episodically formatted script. In this play billed as a dramedy, most of the laugh lines fell surprisingly flat on opening night.
Additionally, the production’s flow suffers at times from the periodically inconsistent blocking Stehlin employs in this exceptionally intimate venue. Characters are parked statically during confrontations that would otherwise involve physical thrusts and parries. At other times, such as the scene set in New York’s Central Park, they move about aimlessly in ways that would clearly catch the concerned attention of others wandering by, given the amplitude of the conversation.
On the whole, it’s a rather depressing tome buoyed by a pair of strong performances that make this production still worthy of a look-see.
May 14, 2016
7–June 11. 3326 W. Victory Blvd. Ample street parking is available;
additional parking at the Northwest Branch Library, directly across from
the theater. Fri-Sat 8pm. Running time approximately 90 minutes.
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