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Photograph by David Allen

Bankable: JoAnne Worley plays Letitia Primrose, a source of ready theatrical cash, in 'On the 20th Century.'


'On the 20th Century' provides a comic, tuneful journey

By Rob Pratt

AMERICAN MUSICAL THEATER has a long and grand tradition of powerful stories and richly orchestrated music. The recent decade has witnessed a peak of this movement in epic productions like Titanic and operatic tales like Aida. Thankfully, not all of Broadway strives after such lofty ambitions. Musical theater also has a tradition of fun shows, of diverting, whimsical and rather inconsequential stories meant simply to entertain. On the 20th Century, a silly farce that earned a Best Musical Tony in 1978, is neither a Broadway classic nor an undiscovered gem, but it's a living example of how the best musical comedies can leave an audience feeling transformed as deeply as drama can.

American Musical Theatre of San Jose, in a production running through Nov. 16, has great fun reviving the show--and since it was written by a team of Broadway legends, it's no wonder why. The frothy plot zigs and zags with tart wordplay penned by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and set to the tune of a Cy Coleman score that moves with breakneck speed.

Loaded with many showy song-and-dance numbers, On the 20th Century is a screwball comedy adapted from a 1934 film starring John Barrymore and Carole Lombard. Theatrical producer Oscar Jaffee (Mark Jacoby) hurriedly leaves Chicago after his latest show flops, sneaking aboard the famed Chicago-to-New York express train, the 20th Century Limited. To avert bankruptcy when the train pulls into New York City, Jaffee must concoct a hit show to keep the creditors at bay. Jaffee eyes Hollywood starlet Lily Garland (Judith Blazer) as the leading lady in his new musical production of Mary Magdalene's life story. To finance the show, Jaffee's partners Owen O'Malley and Oliver Webb (AMTSJ vets Jamie Torcellini and Michael Ray Wisely, respectively) happen upon Letitia Primrose (the inimitable JoAnne Worley), a millionaire manufacturer of a nationally marketed patent medicine.

Primrose, a religious nut, provides the show's funniest moments. In the showcase "Repent," Worley plays the number for everything it's worth in a tour de force of physical comedy. She does the same for the second-act ensemble number "She's a Nut," simply by mugging and waving to the audience.

But it's Blazer who drives the show. As Garland, once Mildred Plotka, a lowly piano accompanist, she never misses a comic moment. In equally fine performances, Jacoby turns in a stately and oily Jaffee, who IS quick to resort to petty manipulations to lure his starlet (and one-time lover) into his scheme, Edward Studenmayer continually pratfalls and tumbles as Bruce Granit, Garland's empty-headed film actor lover, and a quartet of singing-and-tapping porters deftly comments on the passengers' lunacy like a goofy Greek chorus.

On the 20th Century, an American Musical Theatre of San Jose production, runs plays Wednesdays at 2 and 8pm (except Nov. 5), Thursday-Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2 and 8pm and Sundays at 1 and 6;30pm (except Nov. 16) through Nov. 16 at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 Almaden Blvd., San Jose. Tickets are $44.50-$75.50, available by calling 888.455.1469 or online at www.amtsj.org.

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From the November 6-12, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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