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A West Ender’s stop on Broadway

“We’ve got one day here and not another minute…” Well, not one day exactly, but just five—a short week’s stay in New York City from England, and four nights to catch a few shows. So how to choose?

The first choices were easy: two new productions of classic musical comedies, and as it happens, shows by the same team of writers. Betty Comden and Adolph Green were veterans of Broadway by the time they came to write On the Twentieth Century (1978), though merely young starlets when they first scored a hit with On the Town (1944).

On the Twentieth Century — my first night’s choice — was a show I’m not too familiar with, and one whose name until recently I’ve found baffling. But when you learn that The Twentieth Century is the flagship train of the New York Central Lines Rail Road, the title makes a lot more sense. Pulling out of Chicago in a glorious opening number, with Cy Coleman’s (Sweet Charity, City of Angels) music hitting just the right tone to emulate the heady steam era of the 1930s, the trip to New York takes just sixteen hours. In that short journey, struggling theatre impresario Oscar Jaffee (Peter Gallagher) must win back his leading lady Lily Garland (Kristin Chenoweth) and finance a career-saving show in the process. Naturally, certain challenges get in the way, not least the leading lady’s leading man, fawning film star Bruce Granit (Andy Karl). But Comden and Green’s skillful musical comedy script offers a breakneck farce with laughs aplenty, and makes sure all the loose ends are tied by the time the loco pulls into Grand Central.

This production offers much, and is aided immensely by its strong cast. Gallagher and Chenoweth stand out, of course, excellently cast and both superb in their performances. Credit too, though, to all the supporting cast—Michael McGrath and Mark Linn-Baker as Jaffee’s sidekicks Oliver and Owen, looking for all the world like a Nathan Lane and Richard Dreyfuss double-act; Andy Karl as Bruce giving Kevin Kline (who created the role) a run for his money with a superlative physical performance; and Mary Louise Wilson, stealing the show with her doddery antics as bible-basher turned butter-and-egg woman Letitia Peabody Primrose. Top marks, too, to the well-used Porters — Rick Faugno, Richard Riaz Yoder, Phillip Attmore and Drew King — who with their spot-on close harmonies and infectious tap make the most of their roles and the period Coleman score.

Adolph Green On The Town
“Cris Alexander, Adolph Green, and John Battles in the stage production On the Town.” (1944) Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library. New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Truth be told, the score is not the composer’s best, and aside from the title number, it is fairly forgettable. Nevertheless, that number alone is worth the ticket price, showcasing the strength of the cast and the fabulous “Twentieth Century” train itself in all its glory. Next night, and next door, I took my seat for On the Town — the story of three sailors released from their ship for just 24 hours to enjoy the sights and sounds of New York. This was a show I knew, and one I was hoping would not disappoint. This time the Comden and Green script had to compete with plenty of other top-notch material from the Leonard Bernstein score and the Jerome Robbins choreography; it’s a much richer show and deserving of its status as a classic.

Let’s cut to the chase: It’s a superb production, which merits Ben Brantley’s comments that this is “the best musical of the year” with “the best dancing on Broadway.” The show won out over individual performances, and with stunning production design, well-used animations, and exquisite lighting. The whole package is a not-to-be-forgotten must-see hit.

Undoubtedly, it was the dancing that stands out, particularly in the two Pas de Deux that sit at the heart of each act, sequences that are reminiscent of the great MGM sound-stage ballets of Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse. This was not dancing for spectacle or for dancing’s sake; this was dancing as emotional expression, beautifully framed, skillfully performed, and mesmerizingly choreographed by Joshua Bergasse following Jerry Robbins. With the fabulous sounds of the Bernstein score given top treatment by a great band under the direction of James Moore, even the most hardened theatregoer finds themselves remembering what first thrilled them about musical theatre and live performance in the first place.

It was great to see so many youngsters in the crowd for this seventy-year-old show. No doubt they were mesmerized too, and with luck, kicking off a lifetime of enthusiasm for theater.

Friday night and it was time for the “new” Kander and Ebb show The Visit. This was intriguing for its collection of collaborators (Kander and Ebb, Terence McNally, John Doyle), and for its star performance by the talk of the town herself, Chita Rivera. It’s a show based on Friedrich Durrenmatt’s play; rum stuff for a musical, you’d have thought, but then this was Kander and Ebb. The writers of Cabaret and Chicago collaborated on this way back in 2001, but the events of 9/11 put an end to any prospects of a Broadway transfer at that particular point. Since then, Fred Ebb has passed on, yet remarkably, a string of successes from the pair keep appearing on the stage (Curtains, The Scottsboro Boys). And with a script by Terence McNally (It’s Only A Play) and direction by John Doyle (that Sweeney Todd), I was intrigued.

Sure enough, this was a chilling and slightly macabre affair. The music was part Kander and Ebb and part traditional folk song (with a bit of soft shoe thrown in). The characters was enigmatic, not least the henchmen who accompany Rivera’s millionaire character Claire Zachanassian back to her home town of Brachan to settle old scores. These are twin, white-face eunuchs singing jarring close-harmonies in (presumably) castrato style. Alongside Rivera, who undoubtedly brings class to any stage and whose sheer presence is captivating, they steal the show.

It was good to see an older cast on Broadway, and they worked well together as the haunted community of Brachen visited by this Grande-Dame. Roger Rees as Anton was not at his best, and although there was some poignancy in the fact that this virile lover had become a faded old man, I struggled to empathize either with him or with his young alter-ego, who cavorted with the younger Claire throughout on a strangely meandering coffin centre stage.

Odd direction, then, and odd characters in a sketchy show that was either over-truncated or over-extended. It’s most striking for the vivid colour of the “Yellow Shoes” amidst the bleak canvas of the village; but for all that, the show for me limped along a bit, cobwebbed and creaking in delivery as well as theme.

My final night and I felt that the pressure was off. Hedwig and the Angry Inch had its Tony success last year when Neil Patrick Harris won Best Leading Actor in a Musical, and several other awards including Best Revival. But I had to see the creator and original star John Cameron Mitchell in his last couple of nights reviving the role.

As the show begins, this doesn’t seem like theatre; it’s more of a stadium gig with the crowds going wild for JCM. From start to finish, Mitchell kept up this charmingly coy confessional with apparently impromptu banter and kick-ass rock songs. The show is grunge-meets-glam, a sort of Rocky Horror for the new millennium.

Of course, with only four nights, I didn’t get to see everything by any stretch. I’m disappointed not to have seen An American in Paris or Fun Home . I’ll have to wait for my next visit. For now, though, I head back to London with plenty of thrills from the Big Apple, and plenty of songs in my heart.

Image Credit: Times Square. Photo by Wojtek Witkowski. CC0 via Unsplash.

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