TR Robertson … If you want to lose yourself for a couple of hours with a feel good, funny, energetic musical performed by a talented veteran cast, you will want to add Cygnet Theatre’s “On the 20th Century” to your list of theatrical productions to take in. This musical is described as “part operetta, part farce and part screwball comedy”; and it is all entertaining. Based on a 1930’s film and play of the same name, audience members are led on a mad-capped race aboard a luxury train, called the Twentieth Century Limited, as struggling director Oscar Jaffe and cohorts escape from Chicago and try to con a variety of passengers into investing in a play before the train pulls into New York City. The result is a door slamming, tap dancing, high energy, and over-the-top series of misadventures that result in hilarious situations.
The original play was performed on Broadway from 1978 – 1979, with 449 performances, that resulted in 5 Tony Awards. The musical won Best Book on a Musical, Best Original Score, and Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical for John Cullum, Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical for Kevin Kline and Best Scenic Design. The musical also won 5 Drama Desk Awards and a Theatre World Award. The original musical also starred Madeline Kahn in a leading role. “On the 20th Century” enjoyed a 2015 Broadway revival with Kristin Chenoweth in a leading role.
The original book and lyrics were written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green with music by Cy Coleman. Comden and Green were paired together longer than any other writing team in the history of Broadway. They based the musical on 3 different works; a 1932 play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, a 1933 film called “Twentieth Century” starring John Barrymore and Carole Lombard, and Charles Bruce Millholland’s unproduced play “Napoleon of Broadway”.
Photos by Ken Jacques
The musical not only featured an extremely talented cast, but also featured great staging, clever set designs, combined with lighting effects, and intricate choreography not only with dance scenes but most notably with the movement of actors and actresses through fast paced action in the train’s compartments. All of this made possible by the direction of Sean Murray, Artistic Director and co-founder of Cygnet Theater and playing Oscar Jaffe. Jaffe was assisted in this production by Orchestra Director Terry O’Donnell, Choreographer David Brannen, Stage Manager Craig Campbell, Properties Designer Bonnie Durben, Scenic Designer Sean Fanning, and Projection Designer Blake McCarthy. Lighting Designer Chris Rynne, Costume Designer Jeanne Reith and Wig and Make-up Designer Peter Herman.
The 20th Century Limited was a real train, once called the “Most Famous Train in the World”, which ran from Chicago to New York City as an express passenger train. The train serviced passengers from 1902 to 1967 and is responsible for the coining of the phrase, “Red-carpet treatment”, as a crimson carpet was rolled out for departing and arriving passengers. The musical also featured this carpet at the beginning and ending of the musical. The art deco look for the time period in which the train ran, during the 30’s, was emphasized in the musical with the curtain designs, the look of the bar area for the train and a wonderful addition, an upper area above the stage that featured a variety of video scenes to go along with the action on the stage.
But, with all of the staging features, the key to this musical is the amazing performances by the leads. Cygnet Artistic Director Sean Murry, as Oscar Jaffe, provided a large presence on stage, just as he did as Dr. Frank-N-Furter in the “Rocky Horror Show”. Along with leading lady Eileen Bowman, as Lily Garland, Murry and Bowman were audience hits. They had a number of “operatic” numbers, such as “Our Private World”, “I’ve Got It All”, and “Lily, Oscar” that combined with their facial expression and movements left the audience in tears with laughter. Jaffe also provides a “classic” death scene toward the end of the play, don’t be worried, this is not a tragedy. One of the funniest scenes of the musical is Ms. Bowman’s performance as Mildred Plotka, before she becomes Lily Garland, as she plays the piano for an audition by Imelda Thornton, played by Debra Wanger, of “The Indian Maiden’s Lament”. A quick wit, great accent, powerful voice were a preview of what was to come in the musical.
Paired with Murray were his accomplices in theatrical crime, Melissa Fernandes as Olive Webb and Steve Gunderson as Owen O’Malley. Both are Cygnet veterans and Fernandes was recently named the San Diego Critics Circle Female Actor of the Year for her body of work in 2016. As Owen and Olive, the pair were tasked with assisting Oscar in convincing Lily that she should star in Oscar’s new musical (yet to be written or named). When this began to unravel, they were next tasked with finding anyone who could finance his production. Back and forth, in and out of rooms, fired and re-hired the pair are inseparable and perfect foils.
Two crowd favorites for the musical were the performances of Melinda Gilb as Letitia Primrose and Michael Cusimano as Bruce Granit. Gilb and Cusimano are also Cygnet veterans and Cusimano played Riff Raff and starred with Murray in “Rocky Horror Show”. Gilb is a Craig Noel Award winner. As Letitia Primrose, Gilb morphed from the secretive, quiet socialite into a religious zealot, into possible investor into the musical theatre world, into an escapee from a mental institution and another memorable song from the musical, “She’s a Nut”. As she did each of these transitions, the level of hilarity surrounding her grew and grew. She sang, she danced and the audience loved her. For Cusimano, as Lily Garland’s lover, Bruce Granit, his job on stage would be judged to be the hardest as he was charged with increasingly funny physical comedy routines, especially involving getting hit in the face by a variety of doors on the train. I lost count after about ten times, probably closer to 15 or 20. Other crowd favorites were the tap dancing porters who opened the musical and would appear at various times tap dancing and singing their way through the train and they would also close the musical. The Porters were played by Drew Bradford, Trevor Cruse, Luke Jacobs and Bryan Banville. Bradford and Cruse were making their Cygnet debuts.
This is a fun musical, offering something for everyone. There was even a bit of a philosophy of life provided by the train conductor, “Life is like a train, you get on at the beginning and get off at the end and along the way you may meet someone you love or might make a friend.” Performances are running now through April 30. Showtimes are Wednesday and Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays at 8:00pm, Saturdays at 3:00pm and 8:00pm and Sundays at 2:00pm and 7:00pm. Cygnet is located at 4040 Twiggs St. in Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. Box office can be reached at 619-337-1525 or go to firstname.lastname@example.org.