On the Twentieth Century, performed by the final-year acting students from the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, continues at the Silk Street Theatre, London until 6 July.
Rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
On the Twentieth Century is just the sort of musical show that the Guildhall School of Music & Drama does so well.
The cast is a big one with two principal roles that offer talented newcomers a big challenge both dramatically and musically. Yet the original production back in 1978 was never a big hit in New York or in London (1980) suggested by its pedigree.
In has since become something of a connoisseurs’ piece, possibly on account of the score, which veers towards operetta rather than the period in which it is set, the Jazz Age.
Nevertheless, composer Cy Coleman (ironically more of a jazz man himself) knew precisely what he was doing when he set this musical in an earlier era, for the frivolity of operetta is never far from the surface of this knockabout piece.
His effervescent score keeps this musical farce on track, as the steam locomotive, the Twentieth Century, carrying a motley group of passengers, hurtles along from Chicago to New York. On board is a fugitive producer with his press agent and manager, his former mistress now a movie star, her current beau, and a religious fanatic, as well as a philandering congressman.
In one of the evening’s running gags various characters step forward as wannabe playwrights, singing ‘I Have Written a Play’. The book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, not quite at their sparkling best, are drawn from play and film sources, with a number of quick fire changes of scene.
Adam Wiltshire’s handsome design highlights the age of steam very effectively – heralded in the brilliant overture – before translating seamlessly into an art deco world of gold-plated arches and plush railway carriage interiors conveying the luxurious accommodation. Colourful period costumes delight the eye and the clever lighting is spot on.
The plot unfolds partly through flashbacks. Before they board the train we learn how Oscar Jaffe transformed his former protege Mildred Plotka into a star, Lily Garland.
Claudia Jolly, eager to establish her character’s credentials, moves surprisingly from piano accompanist to new-born star, winning our hearts and that of Oscar, as Veronique, a French street singer now leading a marching ensemble with banners and costumes in the tricolours of the French flag.
This audition scene, arguably the strongest in the show, is directed with unusual sensitivity by Martin Connor. Jolly’s endearing performance highlights the star’s vulnerability under her glossy exterior. It would not be wide of the mark to suggest that here is a performer already in the making for a leading role in the West End.
In a further flashback, Lily and Oscar (Theo Boyce) step forward, a neat directional touch, to sing ‘Our Private World’, a graceful tune of near classical perfection, to which they both do full justice.
Boyce, though short in stature for such a swashbuckling figure, is a fine singer, running the gamut in a series of numbers from the rousing ‘I’ll Rise Again’ to his 11 o’clock payoff, ‘The Legacy’, where he bequeathes his theatrical memorabilia to his loyal team.
During another sequence around the number ‘Babette’, in which Jolly faces a dilemma on how to play a quasi Somerset Maugham role, is stunningly executed by her and the company, with brilliant choreography by Bill Deamer.
One further performance that commands attention is Bessie Carter’s Letitia Primrose, the religious ‘nut’. Her comic timing is a constant source of delight and she performs her rather overlong number, ‘Repent’, with panache.
Director Connor clearly loves this show for this is his second production at Guildhall, but he hasn’t quite kept lethargy at bay in a long Act I, though first night caution may have played a part.
The singing ensemble, including the actors in minor roles, is a pleasure to hear in its own right. Nothing is forced, all of it exuding a company spirit.
The orchestra of nearly 40 players, conducted by Dan Jackson, settles down to give an excellent account of themselves, and what a joy it is that we can hear this richly endowed musical piece as it was intended to be performed.
Guildhall still has no peers in mounting a show on this scale.