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So you’re looking for a good time? Look no more: The Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of “On the Twentieth Century” is the best musical to hit Broadway since “On the Town.” Staged with hurtling éclat by Scott Ellis and featuring a jaw-droppingly virtuosic performance by the amazing Kristin Chenoweth, it’s a fluffy exercise in high-octaane pleasure, blessedly devoid of deep thought and certain to satisfy anyone not congenitally po-faced.
Originally produced in 1978, “On the Twentieth Century” is a musical version of the same stage play that Howard Hawks turned into the classic 1934 screwball comedy in which John Barrymore and Carole Lombard played a monstrously vain director (played here by Peter Gallagher) and the equally egomaniacal ex-protégée (Ms. Chenoweth) whom he is desperately seeking to sign for his next show. “Twentieth Century” didn’t and doesn’t need improving, but if you’re going to write a commodity musical, this is the way to do it: “On the Twentieth Century” sports a book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and a score by Cy Coleman, which is as close as it gets to a money-back guarantee of professionalism.
Coleman’s score is a knowing pastiche of old-fashioned over-the-top operetta, and Ms. Chenoweth, a full-fledged musical-comedy singer who also has rock-solid operatic chops up to and including a gleaming high C, was born to sing it. On top of all that, she’s a stage comedienne so accomplished that she can make you laugh without singing a note. It’s as if Beverly Sills and Carol Burnett were the same person….
“The Heidi Chronicles,” the 1988 play in which Wendy Wasserstein asked whether a woman can have it all, won it all. Not only did it run for 622 performances on Broadway, but it nailed the trifecta, scooping up the Pulitzer Prize, the best-play Tony, and the New York Drama Critics Circle’s best-play award. Very often, though, that kind of clean-sweep consensus says more about the timeliness of a work of art than about its actual merits. I was struck by how poorly “The Heidi Chronicles” had aged when I saw the Berkshire Theatre Festival’s excellent 2006 production, and the new Broadway revival, directed by Pam MacKinnon and starring Elisabeth Moss, soon to be formerly of “Mad Men,” fails to make a compelling case for taking Wasserstein’s best-remembered play any more seriously today.
Now as then, “The Heidi Chronicles” is a sentimental exercise in punch-pulling that purports to take a tough-minded look at feminism and its discontents but never cuts close to the knuckle of genuine self-doubt. Ms. Moss plays the title character, an art historian born to Ivy League comfort who opts after modest, tenure-cushioned travail for single motherhood over unhappy romance. As did her creator, Heidi lives in a cultural cocoon that insulates her and her like-minded friends—she has no other kind—from the awkward necessity of considering the possibility that they might be wrong about…well, anything. Unlike true satirists, who rock the boat of complacency vigorously and heedlessly, Wasserstein settled for the safe teasing of the uneasy insider who flirts with heterodoxy (“’New Haven’ means ‘Yale’ in Eastern egalitarian circles”) but in the end wouldn’t dream of saying anything really hurtful about the objects of her glib, sitcommy spoofery….
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To read my complete review of On the Twentieth Century, go here.
To read my complete review of The Heidi Chronicles, go here.
Kristin Chenoweth in a scene from the Broadway revival of On the Twentieth Century: