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A hilariously nefarious trainride

By Charlene Baldridge | Theater Review

As currently produced by Cygnet Theatre, Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s Tony Award-winning 1978 Broadway farce, “On the 20th Century” — with music by Cy Coleman — convinces this observer that it is the funniest musical ever written. It is that exceptionally rich and laden with mirthful treasure.

Attending March 18, opening night, where it will run through April 30, the musical features and is impeccably directed by, Cygnet Artistic Director Sean Murray, who surrounds himself with a rare group of singing comedians, something we’ve come to expect at the theater on Twiggs Street.

Whether leaping onto a seat in Stateroom A or playing one of the flashbacks on the forestage (“Our Private World,” for instance), Murray, who is in fine voice, treads the fine line between reality and absurdity, whether directing himself, or his attractive company, all wildly garbed (it’s the Roaring 20s) by the masterful Jeanne Reith and playing upon Sean Fanning’s unbelievably resplendent scenic design.

The title’s 20th Century refers to the art deco luxury train that famously plied the tracks between Chicago and New York City at the time, carrying theater artists and the wealthy elite who went to see them on Broadway. Once the toast of both towns, theatrical producer Oscar Jaffe (Murray) barely escapes the wrath of an abandoned Chicago theatrical company (his fourth flop in a row) and boards the train at La Salle Station in the Windy City.

(l to r) Steve Gunderson, Sean Murray and Melissa Fernandes on the 20th Century train from Chicago to NYC. (Photo by Ken Jacques)

His faithful retainers, company manager Olive (Melissa Fernandes) and press agent Owen (Steve Gunderson) are sent ahead to secure Drawing Rooms A and B, where Oscar hopes to induce his one-time protégée Lily Garland (the indefatigable, splendid Eileen Bowman), now an Oscar Award-winning film star, to return to the stage. Along with her fabulous ermine coat, she also has her hunky but dim-bulb Hollywood costar, Bruce Granit (Michael Cusimano) in tow, who has one of the show’s best extended-farcical sequences with the stateroom doors.

A delicious flashback recounts how Lily and Oscar first met. Lily, then named Mildred Plotka, was the piano accompanist of Imelda Thornton (Debra Wanger), who auditioned for one of Oscar’s early shows, singing “The Indian Maiden’s Lament” so poorly that Mildred corrected her from the piano. Observing her spunk and talent, Oscar gave the leading role to Mildred, promptly renaming her Lily. A star was born and a blazing romance, long-since cooled, ensued.

Eileen Bowman as Lily Garland (Photo by Ken Jacques)

Meanwhile back on the 20th Century, Olive and Owen discover Miss Letitia Primrose (Melinda Gilb at her best), a religious, wacky benefactor who blithely writes them a humongous check for a new show to star Lily.

A quartet of tap-dancing porters and Pullman staff (Brian Banville, Drew Bradford, Trevor Cruse and Luke H. Jacobs) steals every big scene (David Brannen, choreographer). Others on the 20th Century are Morgan Carberry, Samantha Wynn Greenstone, LaFras Le Roux and Amy Perkins.

Music director/keyboard Terry O’Donnell and an excellent five-piece orchestra are somewhere out of sight. Peter Herman’s wigs and makeup are outstanding. Chris Rynne provides lighting and Dylan Nielsen, the sound. Blake McCarty’s overhead projections provide smoke and other, more hilarious visuals.

This splendidly cast and directed show is so full of amusement it warrants a return visit. Bravo to Murray, who put it all together and makes it appear seamless and effortless, and to all those who fulfilled his bidding so wondrously.

— Charlene Baldridge has been writing about the arts since 1979. You can follow her blog at charlenecriticism.blogspot.com or reach her at charb81@gmail.com.

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