On the Twentieth Century

My favourite musical is City of Angels, and it was the knowledge that its composer, Cy Coleman, also wrote the music for On the Twentieth Century that drew me to see this show on Monday night. Performed by the Guildhall School at the Barbican’s Silk Street Theatre, it proved a highly entertaining evening. The show was based on the 1930s film and play of the same name, and first premiered on Broadway in 1978.

The title refers to a train, the ’20th Century Limited’, running from Chicago to New York, on which theatre producer Oscar Jaffee jumps in order to escape his creditors. With the help of a couple of henchmen, he hopes to persuade America’s number one star, Lily Garland, to appear in one of his shows, a move which would undoubtedly secure his career. However, his past with Lily means that she is not exactly keen on the plan, and there is the added complication of a religious fanatic wandering the train and slapping ‘Repent’ stickers on everything that moves.

Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s book and lyrics are entertaining and witty, while the appealing music has a vintage quality in keeping with its 1920s show business setting. The performers are superb and the set is wonderful, the highlight being a sumptuous railway carriage.

For me, On the Twentieth Century doesn’t quite reach the heights of my favourite City of Angels, but it captured my interest. I would like to see a professional production, but in the meantime this is a worthy alternative.

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