‘On the 20th Century’ full of song and dance

From left, Owen O'Malley (Steve Gunderson), Producer Oscar Jaffe (Sean Murray) and Olive Webb (Melissa Fernandes)  sing "I Rise Again".  Ken Jacques photos
From left, Owen O’Malley (Steve Gunderson), Producer Oscar Jaffe (Sean Murray) and Olive Webb (Melissa Fernandes)  sing “I Rise Again”. Ken Jacques photos

Elizabeth Youngman-Westphal
Special to The Village News

An uproariously raucous, campy musical melodrama, “On the 20th Century” is filled with shtick, finely executed vocal arrangements, impeccable farcical timing and tap dancing. It is all accomplished by an enormously talented cast. This is a hit!

Centered around “The Most Famous Train in the World,” “On the 20th Century” is a take-off of the streamlined 20th Century Limited that traveled between Chicago and New York City at a record 60 miles per hour. It was the height of luxury amongst passenger trains from 1902 to 1967.

Cygnet Theatre pulls out all the stops on this fanciful train ride. The Tony Award winning play originally starred John Cullum, Madeline Kahn, Imogene Cocoa and Kevin Kline. That show is not to be outdone by this Cygnet cast.

Cygnet’s award-winning scenic designer, Sean Fanning, sets the tone. He masterfully recreated Chicago’s LaSalle Station. Fanning incorporates his genius with Blake McCarty’s clever projection designs, together they not only refabricate the Art Deco exterior of the 20th Century Limited, they visually transport us across the rails on the journey to New York’s Grand Central Station.

Choreographer David Brannon imitates the rhythm of the train with snappy tap routines by the conductor (Luke H. Jacobs) and his singing porters Trevor Cruse, Drew Bradford, and Bryan Banville.

A favorite line said by the conductor (Luke H. Jacobs) when he discovers the famous producer Oscar Jaffe is on board: “I have written a play.” As it turns out – so has everyone else.

Costume designer Jeanne Reith is an award-winning style icon. She has used marabou fluff, fur, and glamorous jewels to dazzle the eye. Wig and makeup designer Peter Herman captures the essence of the 20’s by embracing Harlow’s platinum locks coupled with glitzy makeup for the ladies, dapper mustaches and stylish haircuts for the gents.

The story begins when Oscar Jaffe (Sean Murray/John Cullum), a troubled theatrical producer, sneaks into his private compartment to escape the cast members of his current show, which by the way, closed at intermission. In the opening sequences, Oscar is hunted by these unpaid performers.

To save his skin, Oscar must hide from the angry cast until he can be secreted into his train compartment – which is conveniently located next to his former sweethearts compartment who is now the famous Hollywood film star Lily Garland (Eileen Bowman/Madeline Kahn).

Oscar Jaffe (Sean Murray) with Letitia Primrose (Melinda Gilb) as she agrees to finance his next Broadway show. Olive Webb (Melissa Fernandes) and Owen O'Malley (Steve Gunderson) cannot believe their good fortune.
Oscar Jaffe (Sean Murray) with Letitia Primrose (Melinda Gilb) as she agrees to finance his next Broadway show. Olive Webb (Melissa Fernandes) and Owen O’Malley (Steve Gunderson) cannot believe their good fortune.

Oscar’s intent is to lure Garland back to the stage. He is confident that once she signs his new contract, he will be able to find a new backer for his next production which will star Garland – although, truth be told, the play is still yet to be written.

Bruce Granit (Michael Cusimano/Kevin Kline) is very adept at slapstick. He is a fall-out-of-your-chair funny guy who can perform prat falls while still maintaining his handsome leading male persona.

Watch out for Melinda Gilb as Letitia Primrose. She is divinely funny as the willing backer of Oscar’s new show.

2016 female actor of the year Melissa Fernandes as Olive Webb and coworker Owen O’Malley as Steve Gunderson, are Oscar’s minions and contribute laughs along the way.

The ensemble cast is filled with fine performances. Bryan Banville as Max Jacobs is Garland’s agent, Lafras le Roux as Congressman Lockwood, Morgan Carberry as Agnes, Samantha Wynn Greenstone as the doctor, Debra Wanger as Imelda Thornton, and Amy Perkins as Anita.

Oscar Jaffe (Sean Murray) and Lily Garland (Eileen Bowman) sing "I've Got it All."
Oscar Jaffe (Sean Murray) and Lily Garland (Eileen Bowman) sing “I’ve Got it All.”

Book and lyrics are by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Broadway’s longest standing writing team in history. Musical director Terry O’Donnell flawlessly led his merry band of players along Cy Coleman’s score. They are Grant Clarkson – bass, Nathan Hubbard – percussions, Amy Kalal – woodwinds, Richard Morrison – keyboard and Bob Worthington – trumpet.

“On the 20th Century” runs until April 30. Show times: Wednesday and Thursday, 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday 3 and 8 p.m.; Sunday 2 and 7 p.m. The Cygnet Theatre is in historic Old Town San Diego at 4040 Twiggs Street. For tickets, call (619) 337-1525, ask about the ­parking, too.­

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