Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Diego

On the Twentieth Century
Cygnet Theatre
Review by David Dixon | Season Schedule

Sean Murray and Eileen Bowman
Photo by Ken Jacques
Old Town's Cygnet Theatre may be a small intimate theatre, but the company continues to host productions that are big in scope. Artistic Director Sean Murray's version of On the Twentieth Century is an extravagant musical comedy with a capital E. Performers emote with grand gestures, the singing is often brassy, and the slapstick is wild and out of proportion. What Murray pulls off is a consistently enjoyable adaptation of Howard Hawks' film Twentieth Century without a second of seriousness. In other words, the show is cheery joy.

Director/producer Murray stretches his acting muscles to play director/producer Oscar Jaffe. The equally magnetic, self-absorbed and naïve 1920s artist is going through a rough patch after staging several flops. With the help of his press agent Owen O'Malley (Steve Gunderson) and business manager Olive Webb (Melissa Fernandes) he wants to present a new drama. His plan is to reunite with his old muse, the Academy Award-winning performer Lily Garland (Eileen Bowman). The only trouble is that Lily hates Oscar. Lily and Oscar board the 20th Century Limited (a real-life train vividly depicted in Sean Fanning's set). As they become reacquainted, the two encounter fellow train riders such as the indecent Congressman Lockwood (Lafras le Roux), Lily's dopey boyfriend Bruce Granit (Michael Cusimano), and the ultra-religious philanthropist Letitia Primrose (Melinda Gilb).

On the Twentieth Century requires a sense of spectacle, which Murray uses to his advantage. His showmanship skills mix farce, visual wonder, and massive musical numbers. Murray has assembled a crew whose work is easy to appreciate. Dylan Nielsen's audio placements allow every lyric and melody to be clearly heard, and Chris Rynne's lighting adds beautiful color to several dream sequences. Blake MCarty's projections also deserve mention for adding more detail to the train and for featuring non-verbal visual moments with several performers. If it hasn't become obvious at this point of the review, there is a lot to take in when watching the frequent action. Jeanne Reith's costumes bring a sense of class to the evening, and David Brannen's choreography features exuberant tap dancing numbers led by the jolly train conductor (Luke H. Jacobs).

Audience members can spend plenty of time talking about how Murray's screwball adventure looks on stage, but there are plenty of other things that stand out. Brief conversations written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green are hilarious, but they are often a bridge to the wonderful songs featuring Cy Coleman's operetta music. Comden and Green's lyrics blend seamlessly with Coleman's melodies. Every scene feels like a team effort from the three of them. Musical director/conductor/pianist Terry O'Donnell gives songs like "Veronique," "Sign Lily Sign" and "She's a Nut" an addictive quality that will stick with theatregoers for a long time after hearing the tunes.

There is no intentional half-baked attempt to turn On the Twentieth Century into a dramatic narrative with an important message. Still, Comden and Green are able to poke fun at different topics such as the theatre world, Hollywood, and how religion used to be an even bigger influence on entertainment. Neither writer takes firm or political stances on any of these subjects, and use them instead for cheeky gags. Certain lines in the 1978 Broadway hit are a little bit edgier than what could ever be said in the 1930s.

Every artist displays comedic, vocal, and dancing chops. Murray and Bowman have instantly commanding presences, but their moments together are extra special. Comden and Green write Oscar and Lily as an absurdly bad match, and both of them have narcissistic tendencies. Their dysfunctional encounters aren't always meant to be romantic, yet Murray and Bowman's chemistry makes them an unusually irresistible pair. In addition to the leads, Fernandes, Gunderson, Gilb, Jacobs, Cusimano and others have side stories that add to the appeal of the tale.

Murray continues his winning streak with a locomotive journey that results in an upbeat and extremely light experience that pleases the eyes and ears. Many in the audience may find themselves grinning after the show, thinking about the shenanigans that occur during the epic ride.

Cygnet Theatre presents On the Twentieth Century through April 30, 2017. Performs Sundays through Saturdays at 4040 Twiggs St, San Diego. Tickets start at $25.00 and can be purchased online at or by phone at 1-619-337-1525.

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