JWR Articles: Live Event - On the Twentieth Century (Directors: Valerie Moore, Patricia Hamilton) - May 29, 2003
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On the Twentieth Century

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A version of this review appeared in the May 29-June 4, 2003 edition of Pulse Niagara
Shaw musical on right track

America’s Concorde of the ‘30s has steamed into the Royal George Theatre injecting music, dance and song into the Shaw Festival’s 2003 season. All aboard for On the Twentieth Century’s four-month run.

It’s a show that sounds good and looks even better. Yvonne Sauriol’s design excels in setting the scene (including a working model train that sent every rolling-stock enthusiast in the capacity house back to their childhood figure-eight excursions), is as functional as it is period faithful and whose many moving parts made resets and changes a breeze for the fleet-footed cast.

The lighting was in perfect sync and got deserved laughs on its own for the “dirty-work-at-the-crossroads” kitsch of the light at the end of the tunnel and oh-so-apt strobe effect in the search sequence, which, hilariously, drew a porter out of his flapper-era character and briefly into some deft urban-disco moves. Marvellous.

Writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s premise of a four-flop producer (Oscar Jaffee, played with convincing snake-oil charm by Gary Krawford) escaping the wrath of his Windy City unpaid cast, only to plan his most extravagant production while flying across the country in high style (think The Producers, except he wants to make money!), explores the timeless theme of overcoming adversity (“I Rise Again”).

Given the current century’s early “flops:” SARS, West Nile virus, 9/11 and corporate greed, it wasn’t hard to identify with Oscar’s amazing resilience to the many obstacles thrown in his path while simultaneously trying to mount a hit and rekindle an old flame.

The key to both goals is his former discovery, Lily Garland (Patty Jamieson, who had the operatic range if not always the required accuracy to soar through the demanding vocal lines). The flashback scene to her unintentional audition (although the musical ears in the crowd would have realized that her “correction” of the Prima Donna’s pitch “it should be a fourth,” was really an octave), ending her accompanist career as abruptly as changing her name from Mildred Plotka, was an early highlight.

But like Frankenstein’s monster, Lily, drawn by the allure of Hollywood’s glamour and cash, abandoned her creator and the stage only to resurface in Drawing Room B, just one compartment away from her former lover and director. Naturally, Lily’s not alone. Her entourage includes her current on and off-screen love interest.

Dashing, debonair Bruce Granit (Evan Buliung) is the victim of both the animal-cracker script and his far too enthusiastic pelvis-centred imitations (from monkey, to begging dog, to Tarzan—even Peter Rabbit plays a part), but comes across as more in search of a daddy in the leather dungeon than a matinée idol craving motherly assurance. Witness his playful kick in the butt to one of the splendid dancing porters. That drew a half-laugh but also muddied the carnal waters.

Oscar’s salvation comes from the unlikely personage of pill-baronette Letitia Peabody Primrose (delivered with exceptional near-madness by Brigitte Robinson) who, with the stroke of a pen and “Five Zeros” (Act II showstopper), adds one more “good work” to her religious-right résumé. However, like combining the platform of the Canadian Alliance with the morals of percentage-based fundraisers, when his benefactor’s institutional past is discovered, Jaffee’s rise to riches is derailed. But that allows the visual shot du jour, which pays double homage to melodramas past and James Cameron’s Titanic: only the audience is privy to her spectacular hiding spot.

Of course, it’s Cy Coleman’s music that drives the engine of this madcap romp. His tunes—more story-driven than whistle-on-the-way-home memorable—have pace (“She’s A Nut”), humour (“I’ve Written a Play” becomes a recurring gag) and panache (“Babette”). His delightful ensembles are a consistent joy, notably the Music Man-like porter quartet (“Life is a Like a Train”) that opens Act II. Indeed, these fab four (Richard MacDonagh, Shawn Meunier, Mike Nadajewski and Sam Strasfeld) are worth the price of admission alone as they provide the show’s glue, dancing up a storm (complete with Jazz hats—just one example of Valerie Moore’s spot-on choreography) and singing near note-perfect harmonies.

In the pit, music director Paul Sportelli has done a stellar job of adapting Hershey Kay’s orchestration. Only the occasional wayward trumpet bleat and off-the-pulse snare detract from this snappy, vibrant score.

Co-directors Moore and Patricia Hamilton have come up with the hit that Jaffee will never get. There are countless details that would repay a second viewing and they use the entire ensemble to great effect (even an army that includes the transgendered: just sing, don’t tell!). Act I moves along at varying speeds, as their vehicle makes its requisite stops and picks up the story. By letting their talented charges have some leeway (William Vickers as Oliver Webb, the oft-fired press agent nearly steals the show) and stoking Act II with unrelenting zest, they’ve provided the Shaw Festival with an exceptional trip: be sure to hop on for the ride. JWR

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