Howard Samuels, Rebecca Vere, Robbie Scotcher, Chris David Storer, Matt
Harrop, Valda Aviks, Mensah Bediako, Kristopher Milnes, Lulu Alexandra, Virge
Gilchrist, Leejay Townsend
Like 42nd Street, Singin’ in the Rain, Gold Diggers of 1933 and Broadway Melody Cy Coleman’s 1978 musical On the Twentieth
Century is a show about putting on a show.|
The added excitement is that the entire drama takes place on a moving train.
It’s the 1930s and as the locomotive The Twentieth Century undergoes its sixteen
hour journey from Chicago to New York, theatre director Oscar Jaffee has exactly
that time in which to rescue his career. He’s had four flops on the trot, but his train
compartment is next to that of film star Lily Garland. If by the end of the journey he
can persuade her to desert the movies and return to the stage in his new show, his life
would be back on track.
Things are made more colourful by the fact that this pair have a history. He
landed Lily her first break on the stage, but she deserted him when she feared being
pigeon-holed as ‘Oscar Jaffee’s actress’ and then left him far behind. In addition,
a phantom on the train is leaving stickers everywhere, an elderly lady is urging
everyone to repent of their sins, and every passenger is urging Oscar to put on a show
that they have written about their own profession.
In the compact Union Theatre suitcases line the walls to support the notion of
a train journey. The largest props are two beautifully crafted art deco train doors
that move to create different spaces, and support the key line ‘I close the iron
door’, meaning no more chances. Cast members depict the train carriages trundling
along by rocking a row of suitcases, while a chase scene has a strong ‘in one door,
out the other’ quality. Characters sing simultaneously about each other in adjacent
compartments, so that we gain insights into those feelings that they are too afraid to
declare out loud.
Dramatically, however, there are problems. It is obvious how this show will
end, but several factors make the journey to that point less exciting than it could be.
Because we hear early on that privately Oscar and Lily have feelings for each other,
it rather stifles the study of how he woos her to sign up to his show. The balance
between her being won over by her feelings for him, versus what the show can offer
her, isn’t always mastered, making the progression towards a conclusion feel somewhat stilted and arbitrary.
The performances, on the other hand, are excellent. As Oscar, Howard Samuels
has a nice air of dishevelled charm that enables him to play all of the required
roles from flamboyant lover through to humble penitent. As Lily, Rebecca Vere
successfully portrays both the archetypal diva and the lady searching for something
deeper, her sweet voice being especially effective in the upper register.
As Oscar’s assistants, Chris David Storer and Matt Harrop are dream casting
both visually and dramatically. Dubbed ‘incompetent alcoholics’ they prove an
entertaining duo, whether performing on their own or supporting Oscar in his songs.
Valda Aviks also puts in a show-stealing performance as the religious nutter Letitia
Primrose. As she marches around in her song, pointing at the audience as she urges
everyone to repent, it is amazing how time and again her accusing finger seems to fall
on the same people!
The original book and lyrics are by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who were
also responsible for Jule Styne’s Bells are Ringing which the Union staged
recently. Here, musical director Oliver Jackson has taken the decision to arrange the
score for piano, saxophones and clarinet, and it is a combination that proves perfect
for making us truly feel the train’s motion as it chugs its way from Chicago to New