A 21st Century Ride “On the Twentieth Century”

It was a bumpy ride to be sure, and it was more than a year in the making for the Lone Star Lyric Theater Festival 2012 here in Houston. Celebrating its sixth exciting season under the leadership of founder / Artistic Director, Kelli Estes, this year’s offerings began at the Bering Memorial United Methodist Church with the June 15th performance of SONGFEST, a collection of traditional art songs, duets, trios and quartets, with LSL’s talented cast, “…bringing song literature to life in a completely new way. Some familiar. Some new. Some funny. Some moving. All beautifully sung.” The season would close on June 30th at the Ovations Night Club with the LSL FOLLIES as the troupe presented, “…a nearly impromptu evening of Broadway’s finest musical delights.”

Original Production Poster

But in between, with performances at First Christian Church from June 21st – 24th, the group would present its pièce de résistance, a full production revival of Broadway’s 1978 hit musical, On the Twentieth Century. The musical boasts book & lyrics by Betty Comden & Adolph Green, with a musical score by Cy Coleman. Estes knew her talented cast could handle this complex work, which has been aptly described as “part operetta, part farce and part screwball comedy.” A highly trained soprano herself, Estes had no fear of taking on the vocally demanding lead role of Lily Garland. But as I mentioned earlier, it would be a bumpy ride, and Murphy’s Law would send Miss Estes a bout of laryngitis during that all-important week of performances in June. Seldom has the phrase “the show must go on” taken on greater meaning.

I had the pleasure of joining some Texas friends for the Saturday night performance of the run. The sanctuary venue had pluses and minuses. There was ample space and interesting early evening light from the surrounding windows that dappled the room with splashes of stained glass color. But the high ceiling of the room would work against the cast with an echoing quality that made both dialogue and lyrics difficult to hear at times. But what helped the production to overcome these difficulties was the stellar quality of the voices Estes had chosen for this cast. This show could well have been done in simply the concert format made popular by the Encores series so popular in New York. But here, in this full production, we had the enhancements of a fine 7-piece chamber orchestra led by Music Director, Paul L. Johnson, some very elegant 30’s period costume designs from Alicia Chew, and a simple but effective set design from Thomas Coffman, who also designed the fine lighting that featured some amusing spotlight projection moments that added to the fun. Jeff Galligan served as Stage Director.

Oliver Worthington as Oscar Jaffe
Kelli Estes as Lily Garland
PHOTO: Courtesy of LSL

The merry plot revolves around the fading fortunes of theatrical impresario, Oscar Jaffe (Oliver Worthington) whose latest showbiz flop in Chicago has him getting out of town on the Twentieth Century Ltd. train bound for New York. It is on that train that the comical adventures unfold. Oscar knows that cinema star, Lily Garland (Miss Estes), will be on that train, and he hopes to entice his old flame to help revive his reputation by starring in his next Broadway show. Lily’s lover and film co-star, Bruce Granit (David W. Smith), wants no part of her abandoning Hollywood for the theatre. Meanwhile, Oscar’s press agent, Owen (Jonathan Kirkland), and his business manager, Oliver (Jared Guest), do their best to assist Oscar in signing the star.

Jonathan Kirkland (left) with Jared Guest
PHOTO: Courtesy of LSL

This devilish pair sings beautifully and keeps the laughs coming with plenty of help from yet another fine singer, Laz Estrada, in the role of the train conductor. Adding to the mayhem is the character of Leticia Primrose, a harmless but nutty religious fanatic who roams about the train urging repentance and causing plenty of confusion.

Patti Rabaza (left) with Kelli Estes
PHOTO: Courtesy of LSL

(Both vocally and comically, this is a brilliant performance from Patti Rabaza).

The lush musical score is much richer than I recalled from seeing the show more than thirty years ago on Broadway, and I can’t wait to get my hands on a CD of the original production. In the capable hands of this carefully chosen cast with its very strong ensemble, the music was handled so superbly that it seems appropriate to mention the other talented singers in the cast. They included Sarah Berggren, Dennis Gallagher, Brian Kosior, Laura Riggs, Angela Schmidt, Ryan Frenk, and the aforementioned costume designer, Alicia Moore Chew.

L-R – Jonathan Kirkland as Owen O’Malley, David Smith as Bruce Granit, Oliver Worthington as Oscar Jaffee, Patti Rabaza as Leticia Primrose, and Jared Guest as Oliver Webb. PHOTO: Courtesy of LSL

Their collective skill often created the illusion we were attending some elegant concert. The drawbacks to that were the acoustical issues that often muddied the sound making it difficult to clearly hear the lyrics. Compounding that was the difficulty of following the frantic action when chunks of dialogue disappeared in the rafters.

Perhaps most difficult of all was the laryngitis that compromised the performance of the gifted LSL founder, Miss Estes, who had so looked forward to singing the challenging role of Lily. There is no question she could do it. In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I have known Estes for some time as both friend and fellow member of The Lambs in New York. I have heard her in formal concert in the Big Apple, and in normal circumstances her fine voice could certainly meet this challenge.

Two LAMBS meet after the show:
Estes with David Dow Bentley III
PHOTO by Jerry Williams

In fact, even on this occasion she was able to deliver all of the spoken dialogue without a problem. But when it was time for Lily’s songs, the real heroics of the evening came into play. Two very talented cast members came to the rescue as they alternately performed Lily’s songs offstage from the wings while Estes did flawless lip-syncing onstage. This was done so effectively that one of the guests who accompanied me indicated during the intermission that she had been unaware this was even happening. Thus, I must award three gold stars: One to Miss Estes for both her planning and courageous performance, and one for each of her gifted stand-by performers, Sarah Brindley Benavides and Kelly Waguespack. Bravo!

LONE STAR LYRIC is looking ahead to a program of premieres with Spanish flair for Theater Festival 2013. It will include productions of, “Adios a la Bohemia,” “El Chaleco Blanco,” and “La Tepranica.” Festival 2014 is scheduled for a “Rossini-Fest.” For further information about Lone Star Lyric visit www.LoneStarLyric.org or write to LoneStarLyric@gmail.com .

About The People's Critic

David Dow Bentley III, writes columns about the performing arts which are featured in newspapers from the East Coast to the Gulf Coast. A member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), The International Theatre Critics Association, and America's oldest theatrical club, The Lambs, he also had long service as the editor of The Lambs' Script magazine. Mr. Bentley may be contacted via e-mail at ThePeoplesCritic3@gmail.com.
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