Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June, 2001
I am a big fan of Barrington Stage, regularly driving the hour and a quarter from Williamstown to Sheffield to see their shows. The quality of their productions is always excellent, seats are reasonably priced and fairly easy to come by, and the take risks on new shows and old shows that are seldom produced. In a local season which boast two Gilbert & Sullivan operettas, two productions of ART, and a trio of My Fair Ladies, it was exciting to see that BSC was mounting Cy Coleman’s seldom-seen 1978 musical On the Twentieth Century. I was living in New York when On The Twentieth Century opened. I remember that everyone was talking about the sets by Robin Wagner and about Kevin Kline as Bruce Granit (both were awarded Tonys). For those of you who don’t know, and I certainly wouldn’t if I didn’t know this show, the Twentieth Century Limited was a gorgeous, state-of-the-art, luxury train which made the run from Chicago to New York (and vice versa) in 16 hours. I think they literally hired a steel mill and rebuilt the train on Broadway. It took dozens of stagehands to move each of the enormous set pieces.
The memory of those astounding Broadway sets, coupled with the extreme demands of Coleman’s almost operatic score make “On the Twentieth Century” a daunting challenge for any small theatre to mount. But, as I said, BSC likes to take risks. They have risked it all in this big, flashy production. If only the show were worth doing in the first place they would have a hit on their hands!
I was surprised to see that both Coleman’s score and the book by Betty Comden and Adolph Green took home Tonys in 1978 , although the show lost the coveted Best Musical Tony to Ain’t Misbehavin'” The one thing that struck me in this production was the general incoherence of the book and lyrics – Comden and Green seemed very fond of repeating a line or even the title of a song over and over and over and over… The Act II opener, which features a tap-dancing chorus of porters, is entitled Life is Like a Train and that is just about all there is to that song. I wanted to know WHY and HOW life is like a train, not just that it IS. But those tap-dancing porters just kept telling me over and over and over “life is like a train, life is like a train, life is like a train.” They sang it very well and danced divinely and looked very smart in their porter uniforms, but none of that made me understand or care about the similarities between life and locomotives.
So BSC has hired a superb cast, directed well, as always, by BSC artistic director Julianne Boyd. Sarah Lambert has designed a very attractive and functional set. It cost a mint by BSC standards, but it doesn’t take an army of stagehands to manipulate. I attended the show with my 12-year old son, Brandon, who wanted to look at the set up close before we went home. We were struck with how little and shabby it all looked, as most sets do when they are empty and unlit. This made me realize how much Jeff Croiter’s lighting had done for the whole look of the show – making everything sparkle when it was really all very ordinary.
The person who should be shot is sound designer Sunil Rajan. BSC uses body mikes, which I abhor. The Consolati Center at Mt. Everett is just barely big enough to warrant their use with trained voices, particularly operatically trained voices. Body mikes are prone to malfunctioning or getting muffled as performers dance and sweat and change costumes. Embracing couples often find their voices seemingly emmenating from each other’s bodies as they whisper sweet nothings directly into the microphone on their partner’s lapel or tucked behind his ear. Not only does Rajan have that nightmare to contend with, but the orchestra is off stage and has to be piped in. On the night that we attended, which was a preview, Rajan had not got the balances right yet. The orchestra practically blew you out of your seat while some performers were inaudible or incomprehensible. Combine all that with an incoherent book and lyrics and you have BIG trouble.
If Comden and Green had created characters you cared for and a story you could follow, Dennis Parlato as Oscar Jaffee, Kim Crosby as Lily Garland, Christopher Yates as Bruce Granit, and Joy Franz as Mrs. Leticia Peabody Primrose would be the stars of the season. They all acquit themselves well, particularly vocally. Yates and Franz were delightful, but I could not help pining for Kline and the late Imogene Coca in those roles. Actually, when I saw Melissa Hart as Little Buttercup in the BTF production of H.M.S. Pinafore I was struck by how much she reminded me of Coca and was all for effecting an actors exchange program between BSC and BTF!
As a theatre history buff, I am very glad that I have seen On The Twentieth Century and can honestly say that I have seen one of the best productions that any small theatre could possibly mount. But I cannot say that I want to see it again. It is darned peculiar show with little charm of its own. Whatever is good and wonderful at BSC is thanks to Julianne Boyd, et al. I hope they continue to take worthwhile risks. I always learn so much from them.
On The Twentieth Century runs through July 14 at Barrington Stage Company (413-528-8888) performing at Mt. Everett Regional High School (413-229-8734), on Berkshire School Road between Rts. 7 & 41 in Sheffield. The show runs about three hours with one intermission. It is suitable for all ages.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2001