On the Twentieth Century Review - A Tuneful Train Trip

Based on a 1930’s film and play, ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY has been described as part operetta, part farce, and part screwball comedy. The musical was inspired by a 1932 play of the same name by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, with their inspiration being Charles Bruce Mulholland’s unproduced play, “Napoleon of Broadway,” about his experiences working for theater producer David Belasco. ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY opened on Broadway in 1978 and won five Tony Awards. It has been revived several times, most notably on Broadway in 2015, when it received numerous Tony nominations and one Tony Award.

Wade Kelley and Alena Bernardi - Photo by Nicholas Mastrolia

The musical takes place at the end of the “Roaring 20’s” on board a train going from Chicago to New York. Egomaniac producer Oscar Jaffee (Wade Kelley) has had four flops in a row and is currently broke. With the help of his two sidekicks Oliver Webb (Rafael Orduna) and Owen O'Malley (Nate Beals), he’s hoping to entice temperamental movie star Lily Garland (Alena Bernardi) into taking part in his next stage venture. It seems that Ms. Garland was born Mildred Plotka and was originally discovered by Jaffee, who taught her the ropes (both onstage and in the bedroom). Alena Bernardi also serves as musical director for the production.

Philip McBride, Nicole Sevey, Talya Sindel, and Rowan Treadway - Photo by Nicholas Mastrolia

Imagine Oscar’s excitement when he meets Mrs. Letitia Primrose (Georgan George), a lady loaded with bucks – and a few secrets – who wants to finance his next venture. Mme. Primrose seems obsessed with religion, and Oscar has tempted her with his vision of Lily as Mary Magdalene, the sexy penitent.  While Lily considers Oscar’s offer, movie star and current lover Bruce Cranit (Nathan Jenisch) tries his best to dissuade her from taking the leap from film to stage. And, besides, he wants to keep co-starring with her in lots of new films and remain a friend “with benefits.”

Nate Beals, Rafael Orduna, Oscar Jaffee, and Georgan George - Photo by Nicholas Mastrolia

ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY is studded with clever melodies (book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and music by Cy Coleman). The revival is graced with a small combo playing the show’s tunes, including Cynthia Cook-Heath (piano), Millie Martin (bass), Michael Dubin (drums), and Christian Robinson (trumpet), who close the distance between the audience and the music. Rebekah Atwell’s set and lighting are simple (and sometimes shaky or even uncooperative), with cast members discreetly moving props around as needed. Rachel Harmon’s costumes remind us that the action takes place in the early 30’s. Averi Quinn Yorek’s choreography includes some tap dancing – which fits right in with the clacking of train wheels.

Alena Bernardi and Nathan Jenisch - Photo by Nicholas Mastrolia

The cast belongs to the Proof Doubt Closer Theatre Company, a group dedicated to presenting live theater. The current production was helmed by Trace Oakley. Everyone was clearly enthusiastic and giving his all to the show. At the same time, the production seemed less than fully professional at times.  The Company has chosen a very complex musical - which may take more than “heart” alone to navigate successfully. There was considerable range in acting skills and/or experience among the many members of the cast.  Given that this is a farce with little to no character development, some of the actors may have been encouraged to “ham it up.” On top of that, it was a very warm evening for both actors and audience – which may have caused the play to seem rather long. Still, it was an engaging and entertaining evening offering the audience the chance to see some good, old-fashioned musical theater.

Georgan George - Photo by Nicholas Mastrolia

ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY runs through August 27, 2017, with performance at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and at 2 p.m. on Sundays. The Pan-Andreas Theatre is located at 5119 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90038. Tickets are $30. For information and reservations, call 800-838-3006 or go online.

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