Review: On The 20th Century – Union ****

Penned by the creative brains behind MGM masterpiece Singing In The Rain and scored by Cy Coleman, On The 20th Century is thick with musical pedigree. So it should come as no surprise that it’s really rather good. With The Union Theatre’s steadily growing reputation for cracking musical theatre, it’s also no shocker (but still a real treat) that Oliver Jackson’s pared down saxophone orchestration jauntily sparkles or that this cast has a set of pipes that would make a cathedral organist green with envy.

The once great theatre producer, Oscar Jaffee is trying to seduce film star Lilly Gardner back into their ‘Own Private World’ both professionally and personally.  As if this were not amusing enough, and watching the fiery and flamboyant Howard Samuels and Rebecca Vere really is, they are surrounded by a gaggle of supporting characters who fawn and flutter, each embodying a cheeky poke at this silly business we call show. You cannot help be won round by the strength of these full bloodied, terribly funny theatrical personages that rampage round the Twentieth Century Limited locomotive like crazed Billy Wilder characters.

From the little and large PR man and Company Manager, to the line of average Joes who all have a bestselling play up their sleeves, writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green mercilessly send up the industry with an affection that comes from an insiders self-awareness. Coleman’s score also relishes in this parody but transcends it to a sublime arrangement of intricate melodies and multi-part harmonies that make this comic opera truly operatic.

better than the West End, this Christmas spend half the price and have twice the fun

Samuels is exuberant as Jaffee, if occasionally a little gruff, but it is Vere who really soars here with a performance as Lilly Gardner that straddles this diva’s tantrums and insecurities perfectly. Vere has a voice that could at once break glass or caress a lover and she uses it fearlessly.  There is strong support from Matt Harrop and Chris David Storer as Jaffee’s two Musketeers and Valda Aviks who nearly steals the show as the softly spoken Letitia Primrose in ‘Repent’, a maniacal call to religion (watch out she doesn’t sticker you).

Ryan McBryde’s direction is authentic and classy and Drew McOnie’s witty choreography cleverly utilises the Union’s stage to epic effect. Much better than a lot of musicals currently on the West End, this Christmas spend half the price and have twice the fun at On The 20th Century.

**** (4 stars)
Runs until 15th January 2011
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  1. Thanks for a great review – just like to point out though that “Oliver Webb” is the character’s name not my name!

    Chris David Storer.

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