Cue the applause: Kristin Chenoweth is back on Broadway. The television, film and theater darling has her pick of parts, and she’s certainly picked one that hits all the right notes: Her comedy chops, operatic range and massive stage presence all get the breathing room they deserve in the role of Lily Garland in “On the Twentieth Century,” at the American Airlines Theatre.
The musical is set at the height of locomotive luxury in 1930s America. Theater producer Oscar Jaffee (Peter Gallagher) has just closed a massive flop in Chicago and he’s about to go bankrupt. But he’s got one more ace up his sleeve: His former flame and protégé, Lily Garland (nee Mildred Plotka), will also be riding the rails to New York in the drawing room next to his onboard the “Twentieth Century.”
If Oscar and his two (fairly bland, interchangeable) companions can get the famous movie star to sign a contract with them in the 16 hours, when the train chugs into Grand Central Station, they’re sure to get the financial backing they need to stay afloat. There’s just one problem: They might not actually have a part for her to play — yet. But as the song says, anyone’s luck can change “On the Twentieth Century.”
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Director Scott Ellis has handled this revival smartly, letting it coast on its pleasant, if dated, construct where it suffices, but then giving the staging a few plucky twists just when you’re about to glance at your watch. The most ambitious and mesmerizing angle is Warren Carlyle’s choreography, which is energetic and fearless. And it’s not just the big musical number: Charismatic porters tap dance through transitional interludes. Characters ranging from beefcake Andy Karl (“Rocky”) to octogenarian Mary Louise Wilson (“Grey Gardens”) give us over-the-top bits, from train surfing to walking into doorjambs. Chenoweth nails the many lifts, drops, squeezes and shuffles required of her over-the-top diva; her work with Karl is especially genius, juxtaposing their dainty and buff frames (he picks her up many a time, and it never gets old; at one point, count on her to ride him like a pony).
Chenoweth embodies the best of this play: Where the singing is superb, and the acting hits every mark, the spectacle — including the posturing, the pratfalls, the dance — matches or surpasses both. And with the help of a first-class set and on-point costumes, it’s really the total package that makes passage “On the Twentieth Century” worth the ticket.