Andy Karl and Kristin Chenoweth in the revival of “On the Twentieth Century,” at the American Airlines Theatre. | JOAN MARCUS
Watching the smashing revival of “On the Twentieth Century” now at Roundabout, one is struck by two things. First, the joys that the inherently implausible form of the classic book musical can deliver and, second, the thrill of watching a great big Broadway star at the height of her powers. That’s the performance of Kristin Chenoweth, who returns to Broadway in a bravura performance that makes beautiful use of her incredible triple threat talents — singing, dancing, and comedy.
Chenoweth plays Lily Garland, a movie star en route to New York from Chicago on the titular train. On the train, also, is her one-time producer and paramour Oscar Jaffee who, down on his luck, wants to sign Lily to a Broadway contract to save his own career. The book by Betty Comden and Adolph Green has the typical 1930s jokes about the art of the stage versus the “celluloid slime” of the movie business, andis joined to one of Cy Coleman’s best scores. Lily is traveling with her matinee idol-ish, self-obsessed boyfriend Bruce Granit and revels in her newfound wealth and power — and a chance to lord it all over Oscar, with whom she was once in love.
It’s the kind of story that even though you know exactly where it’s going, you can’t wait to go on the journey. A subplot concerns a seemingly wealthy religious zealot who is eager to finance Oscar’s play about Mary Magdalene starring Lily —saving him and the theater at the same time. It’s a lovely bit of satire about popular taste and religion, made even more trenchant by the current NBC “sequel” to its absolutely ghastly “The Bible.”
Two revivals and a new play offer fun for the early spring
Meanwhile, back on stage, Chenoweth tears into every moment with precision, charm, and artistry that is awe-inspiring. From “Steel Pier,” we knew she could dance. From “Scapin” with Bill Irwin, we knew she was a brilliant comedienne, and from anything she’s done, we knew she had an operatic voice that slides easily into musicals. It’s been a while, though, since we’ve had the joy of seeing her use her full range. There isn’t a note or a gag that doesn’t land perfectly in her performance.
Chenoweth and the show are supported by a stellar cast. Andy Karl as Lily’s boy toy is back in the ring after his terrific bout in “Rocky” last season. The comic skills he showed in “Legally Blonde” and even “Altar Boyz,” are on full display, and he is both suave and silly, fantastically over-the-top doing bits and physical comedy that recall ‘30s screwball comedies. Together, he and Chenoweth get the biggest laughs in the show, at once antic and endearing.
Peter Gallagher as Oscar is very good with a kind of oleaginous suavity that is consistently funny. The songs are set a little low for his voice, but he and Chenoweth are also well matched for the comedy.
Mary Louise Wilson, on the other hand, doesn’t quite bring off the role of Mrs. Primrose, the ersatz evangelist. While she’s certainly game to try, her voice isn’t equal to the songs and her big number, “Repent,” is careful and lacks the edge it needs.
The rest of the supporting cast does a fine job, and the ensemble is terrific. With spectacular sets by David Rockwell, glorious costumes by William Ivey Long and lighting by Donald Holder, the production looks spectacular. Jon Weston’s sound design is also worth noting because the singers sound completely natural — no easy feat in current musicals.
“On the Twentieth Century,” first on Broadway in 1978, was one of the last big old-fashioned musicals. With its bright score, hilarious book, and, here, a joyful, winning production directed by Scott Ellis, the return trip is a complete delight.
Larry David in “Fish in the Dark,” his debut as a playwright and actor on Broadway. | JOAN MARCUS
I have been peripherally aware of Larry David for years, though I’ve never seen “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and didn’t watch “Seinfeld.” So perhaps I came to his new Broadway comedy “Fish in the Dark” a little behind his rabid fans. That didn’t dampen the pleasure of his highly conventional but consistently amusing play.
It’s the story of a family being torn apart by the death of the father and the battle over who is going to take in the overbearing mother. In the vein of Neil Simon’s comedies, it’s character and situation-driven, as David’s character Norman Drexler is the somewhat hapless guy at the center of a familial tempest. David is mostly a one-note performer and the role is a popular trope, the anguished man in the center of an insane world like the father in “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” but he has a quirky charm that works. And David had the good sense to surround himself with some of the top character actors in the business, including the always marvelous Jayne Houdyshell, Ben Shenkman, Lewis J. Stadlen, and Rosie Perez in a terrific turn as Norman’s housekeeper.
Director Anna D. Shapiro knows exactly what the material is and delivers all the set-ups and gags sharply. This may not be groundbreaking playwriting, but it is a lot of fun, and sometimes laughing at the inanity of relatives is just what anyone with a family needs.
Beth Henley’s “Abundance” is one of her lesser plays. Fragmented in its storytelling, it’s a bit heavy handed in its examination of the mythology of the American West in the 19th century refracted through a current-day feminist perspective. While the play can be clunky, the recent production by TACT shows just how much good direction and solid acting can do to create a satisfying evening out of lesser material.
Tracy Meddenor in the recent production of “Abundance.”
Central to its success was the sensationally focused performance of Tracy Middendor as Bess, a mail-order bride, who finds herself with an abusive husband, is kidnapped by Indians, and later creates a vaudeville sensation. Her lifelong friend Macon, played by Kelly McAndrew, is intended to satirize the how the mythical can-do spirit of the West collides with the harsh realities of the time, and McAndrew managed to humanize what is largely a literary conceit.
Under the direction of Jenn Thompson, the production moved briskly and often overcomes the weaknesses of the script. More importantly, it showcased the role of the producing company TACT in finding under-exposed plays and giving them vibrant and often-inspiring staings, making it an always welcome and necessary company.