During the On the Twentieth Century revival -- a musical comedy vehicle about a vehicle -- any number of Broadway veterans, including Kristin Chenoweth and Peter Gallagher, are working at the top of their forms. On the job and giving their all throughout, they're offering patrons plenty of cause to be entertained.
There is a problem, however. When 37 years back, librettist-lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green and composer Cy Coleman adapted the Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur-Bruce Millholland play (filmed so gloriously with John Barrymore and Carole Lombard), the threesome and director Harold Prince were not working at the top of their celebrated forms. Maybe that's just the way of the busy-busy theater world.
From the results, spruced up at Roundabout's American Airlines shelter by director Scott Ellis and choreographer Warren Carlyle, the evidence suggests that Comden, Green and Coleman were working at somewhere around the middle of their forms as they went about musicalizing the screwball tale of out-of-luck, Svengali-like producer Oscar Jaffee (Gallagher) hoping to resurrect his career by getting his particular Trilby, Mildred Plotka-now-Lily Garland, to headline his next play. He has to succeed while they speed the 16 hours from Chicago to New York City on the 20th you-know-what.
There's no gainsaying that the beloved Chenoweth -- seemingly born to play the role (whereas she wasn't nearly right for Fran Kubelik in Promises Promises, her last B'way stint) -- and Gallagher carry off as much of the yuk-hunting love-hate relationship as they can. It's also undeniable that somehow what the book writers kept of the comically combustible give-and-take for this treatment doesn't provide the performers enough to sink their honed teeth into. Comden and Green never supply a sense of what Jaffee did to alienate Lily to the extent he apparently has. Nor do they suggest what her rise to fame might have contributed to her side of the rift.
Chenoweth and Gallagher are tops in the vocal department, too, as of the revival opening, although Gallagher was still manifesting vestiges of the condition that kept him out of several performances during previews. Trained soprano Chenoweth was having no difficulty with her assignments. She's repeatedly called on to go stratospheric, and each time she takes off as if she's on a rocket and not a train.
As Letitia Peabody Primrose, a religious activist claiming to have no end of funds, Mary Louise Wilson (whom I first saw being hilarious while singing "It's Never Too Late to Fall in Love" in a Boy Friend stock production over 50 years ago) gets her laughs -- such as they are -- as usual, and Andy Karl, in a complete reversal from last season's Rocky title role does the right amount of chest-puffing as Lily's current and buffoonish leading man.
Michael McGrath and Mark Linn-Baker, whom director Ellis appropriated from his superb You Can't Take It With You re-view, do Tweedle-Dee/Tweedle-dum duty as Jaffee's yes-men with their recognized aplomb. The members of the ensemble look good, particularly Rick Faugno, Richard Riaz Yoder, Phillip Attmore and Drew King as dancing porters who introduce acts one and two with such fervor that the crowd can barely contain itself.
All other elements of the enterprise look, as one exiting enthusiast remarked, "so Broadway." It's all true. David Rockwell's streamlined, glitter-and-gloss set with show curtain referencing the time-honored 20th Century Fox logo, William Ivey Long's costume leading up to an all-white finale, Donald Holder's lighting and Jon Weston's sound uphold expected standards.
But they're all up against that so-so book and those so-so songs. "What did I do that was so wrong," Gallagher implores in a song with new lyrics by Green's go-to lyricist daughter Amanda. Good question. It wasn't that what the creators did was so wrong. It's just that very little was more than acceptably all right.
At no time did Comden and Green tap into the indefinable resource that makes a song an instant click, something they had no trouble doing with On the Town, their other (sensationally) revived show this season.. Rather, they remained steadfastly competent from start to finish. "Our Private World," the big ballad, sung by Oscar and Lily recalling their early affair, gets close to standard potential but doesn't quite get there. The most attractive number is the quartet "Five Zeros," which Gallagher, Wilson, Linn-Baker and McGrath put across by way of breezy appeal.
On the other hand, songs like "Sign Lily Sign" and "She's a Nut" are just extended rants. Every once in a while, a minor character barges into Jaffee's couchette with a script. Their chanted intrusions are reminiscent of the satirical Bells Are Ringing songs the dentist/wannabe-tunesmith warbles.
The lavish first-act "Veronique" and second-act "Babette" production numbers connect not because they're top-drawer Comden-Green-Coleman fireworks but because choreographer Carlyle brings so much dash to them and Chenoweth makes soufflés of them with her comic acumen. And something has to be said for Larry Hochman's orchestrations (Hershy Kay was the original orchestrator), which add rousing jingle-jangle.
Where this On the Twentieth Century is concerned, let's leave it as the latest example of absent inspiration sufficiently compensated for by never-to-be-dismissed Broadway showmanship.