Photo by Ken Jacques
Sean Murray and Eileen Bowman in On the Twentieth Century
If train travel came with as many laughs as it does in On the 20th Century, Amtrak wouldn’t have to advertise. It’s easy to see why this musical-comedy romp written by Cy Coleman with music and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green—all three theater royalty—was such a crowd pleaser and award grabber when it ran on Broadway in the late ‘70s. Now, Cygnet Theatre in Old Town is staging this charmer in a production worthy of its heritage. Like a locomotive running low on coal, On the 20th Century slows down midway through the second act and relies on silliness to reach its expected destination, but the trip up to then is a delightful spoof of sophistication and showbiz.
With her bodacious hair and trilling voice, Eileen Bowman totally scores as Lily Garland, a Roaring Twenties film star being wooed aboard the 20th Century Limited train to New York by hapless theater producer Oscar Jaffe (Sean Murray, who also directs this Cygnet production). Jaffe is only wooing Garland in part for love and because he knows she is just the ticket to launching a hit show that will beat off the bill-collecting wolves at his door. The role of Lily was originated on Broadway by the incomparable Madeline Kahn, but Bowman, a force of nature, is no slouch. Elsewhere, Melinda Gilb nearly runs off with the show as a dizzy religious zealot who’s on the train. (Her “Repent” number is a highlight of Act One, and “She’s a Nut,” when the dizziness is discovered, is the highlight of Act Two.) Also part of this ace cast are Melissa Fernandes and Steve Gunderson as Oscar Jaffe’s exasperated “bootlickers,” as Lily calls them; and Michael Cusimano as Lily’s hunky lapdog of a beau.
This is a lush production with an inspired set (by Sean Fanning), screen projections (by Blake McCarty) that give the feel like of being a train passenger, and ‘20s costumes (designed by Jeanne Reith) that are both nostalgic and glamorous. David Brannen’s whimsical choreography keeps the energy high.
For all its length (over two and a half hours), On the 20th Century chugs right along until that aforementioned lag in Act Two. But by then patrons will be won over by Comden and Green’s witty tunes and Coleman’s cartoonish but lovable characters.
On the 20th Century runs through April 30 at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town. $31-$56; cygnettheatre.com
Finding the Sun: Edward Albee’s one-act play where four couples explore love and passion on a New England beach. Directed by Meg Stoll and Susie Gallagher, it opens March 23 for four performances at the University of San Diego’s Vassiliadis Family Black Box Theatre in Linda Vista. sandiego.edu
Grease: A good girl and a greaser realize they’re the ones that they want. Or something like that. Presented by Star Repertory Theatre, it opens March 23 for six performances at the California Center for the Arts in Escondido. starrepertorytheatre.com
The 39 Steps: A comedic adaptation of the classic Alfred Hitchcock thriller about a man with a photographic memory who gets caught up in a murder mystery. Directed by Desha Crownover, it opens March 24 at the Coronado Playhouse. coronadoplayhouse.com
Over the Tavern: A spry 12-year-old decides he wants to practice a more “fun” religion much to the chagrin of his Roman Catholic family and a strict nun. Directed by Annette Alliano, it opens March 24 at PowPAC Community Theatre in Poway. powpac.org
Red Velvet: When an acclaimed British actor can’t play Othello, a Black American steps in to play the title character in early 1800s London. Written by Lolita Chakrabarti, it opens March 25 at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park. theoldglobe.org
A Piece of My Heart: Shirley Lauro’s prize-winning play tells the true story of six women who served in the Vietnam War. Directed by Jeannette Thomas, it runs through March 25 at the Grossmont College Theatre in El Cajon. grossmont.edu
Next Fall: After a terrible traffic accident, a gay man begins to question his atheism when he has to turn to his partner’s Christian family. Written by Geoffrey Nauffts, it runs through March 25 at the OnStage Playhouse in Chula Vista. onstageplayhouse.info
The Blameless: Nick Gandiello’s drama was developed during the 2016 New Voices Festival and tells the story of the Garcia family, who are struggling to recover from a traumatizing event. It runs through March 26 at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park. theoldglobe.org
Honky Tonk Laundry: The premiere musical centers on two female laundromat employees who still manage to get their hands dirty. Featuring the music of the Dixie Chicks, Martina McBride, Pasty Cline and other country music notables, it runs through March 26 at the Broadway Theatre in Vista. broadwayvista.biz
Shadowlands: William Nicholson’s drama tells the true story of a late-in-life romance between C.S. Lewis and American poet Joy Davidman. Directed by Kerry Meads, it runs through April 9 at the Lamb’s Players Theatre in Coronado. lambsplayers.org
The Dresser: A WWII-era theatre dresser attempts to prepare a veteran stage actor for a King Lear performance. Written by Ronald Harwood and based on his own experiences, the play runs through April 16 at the Lamplighters Community Theatre in La Mesa. lamplighterslamesa.com
Awake & Sing!: Clifford Odets’ Tony Award-winning drama about a third-generation Jewish family who all share an apartment in the Bronx during the Great Depression. Directed by Kristianne Kurner, it runs through April 16 at the New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad. newvillagearts.org
On the 20th Century: A comedic musical about a down-on-his-luck theatre producer who is trying to convince his actress ex to play the main part is a nonexistent drama. Directed by Sean Murray, it runs through April 30 at the Cygnet Theatre in Old Town. cygnettheatre.com