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EAST HADDAM, Conn. A Goodspeed Opera House presentation of a musical in two acts with book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and music by Cy Coleman based on the plays by Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur and Bruce Millholland. Directed by Ted Pappas; choreography by Peggy Hickey; musical director, Michael O'Flaherty. Sets, James Noone; costumes, David C. Woolard; lighting, David F. Segal; orchestrator/assistant musical director, Christopher Jahnke; production manager, R. Glen Grusmark; stage manager, Donna Cooper Hilton; casting director, Warren Pincus; associate producer, Sue Frost; assistant stage manager, Jason Trubitt. Executive director, Michael P. Price. Opened April 30, 1999. Reviewed May 28. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.
Lily Garland                     Donna English
Oscar Jaffee                       Mark Jacoby
Bruce Granit                       Tony Lawson
Owen O'Malley                Michael McCormick
Letitia Peabody
Primrose                         Jan Neuberger
Oliver Webb                   Peter Van Wagner
Conductor Flanagan,
Ensemble                   Todd Michael Thomas
Congressman Groverf
  Lockwood, Ensemble           Ronald L. Brown
Imelda Thornton,
 Ensemble                        Debra Cardona
Max Jacobs, Ensemble               Paul Carlin
Agnes, Ensemble                Cynthia Collins
Dr. Johnson,
 Ensemble                      Tim Salamandyk

Ensemble: Don Brewer, Jessica Frankel,
Justin Greer, Jamie Johnson, Sarah Anne
Lewis, Brian O'Brien, Jody Reynard, Todd
Bradley Smith, Michael Susko.

The good news is that the Goodspeed Opera House has launched its 1999 mainstage season on a much happier note than it ended its 1998 season: The 1978 Broadway musical "On the Twentieth Century" responds well to revival, whereas last fall's attempt at resuscitating 1959's "Redhead" was wholly unfortunate. The bad news is that the Goodspeed Opera House continues to play comedy so broadly that it tramples on its own laughs rather than use the subtlety needed, particularly in such a small theater.

"Owen, don't overact," this musical's ham of a failed producer Oscar Jaffee (Mark Jacoby) warns one of his sidekicks late in the piece. This is definitely a laugh line because Jacoby/Jaffee has been overacting like mad throughout --along with everyone else.

They're supposed to, of course, in Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Cy Coleman's spoof of screwball comedies and operettas, which opens with a scene from an excruciatingly dreadful play about Joan of Arc and ends with straight out door-slamming farce. But lightness of touch is absent.

Nevertheless, partly because of the musical sophistication of Coleman's comic-opera pastiche, parody score, Goodspeed's "On the Twentieth Century" does have more than a few ingratiating moments. Act two simply takes off into the world of high farce in the ensemble number "She's a Nut" as the entire cast chases the religiously insane Letitia Peabody Primrose (Jan Neuberger) through the corridors and roomettes of designer James Noone's gleaming art-deco New York Central Lines train on its way from Chicago to New York.

Act two then offers a musically hilarious, send-up of warbled death scenes as Oscar fakes his own demise in order to trick movie star Lily Garland (Donna English), once his protege and lover, into signing a contract to play Mary Magdalene in a Broadway play yet to be written.

Parodies and spoofs are tricky, and director Ted Pappas and his cast go at "On the Twentieth Century" in too obvious a manner. But because they have vigor and tempo to spare, their production seldom languishes. Choreographer Peggy Hickey in her Goodspeed debut contributes a lot toward keeping things moving. Tapping redcaps mirror the rhythms of the rails, just as the steam from Noone's art deco engine at the production's opening blossoms forth in tempo with the overture. Throughout the very '30s chromium-trimmed sets allow for quick changes from the 20th Century train to theatrical flashbacks and flash forwards.

But it is the music that drives "On the Twentieth Century," and Christopher Jahnke has done a splendid job of reorchestrating it for Goodspeed's eight-piece band. The hard-working musicians under Michael O'Flaherty's deft baton acquit themselves with real polish.

The entire cast gives its all. Jacoby (looking very much like a Barrymore) may be a mite too mature for Jaffee, and, although he offers a one-note performance, he certainly doesn't lack energy or vigor.

Opposite him, English is a lovely, feisty Lily via Bronx, French and film-star accents, though she is a less loopily comic actress than Broadway's Madeline Kahn and Judy Kaye (who followed Kahn as Lily).

Michael McCormick and Peter Van Wagner are splendidly seedy as Oscar's press agent and business manager, and Tony Lawson is amusingly dimwitted as Bruce Granit, Lily's narcissistic hunk of a boy toy who looks like a young Clark Gable.

All of the cameo roles, played by members of the ensemble, are overacted with verve, especially the series of amateur playwrights that dog Oscar.

David C. Woolard's '30s costumes add to the production's apt art-deco look. And, broad though it may be, Goodspeed's "On the Twentieth Century" may well be more entertaining than the scenery-dominated Broadway original.3
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Title Annotation:Review
Article Type:Theater Review
Geographic Code:1U1CT
Date:Jun 21, 1999
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