A troupe's bold beginning

Severna Park group makes debut with a challenging musical

Theater review

July 31, 2008|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,Special to The Sun

A new Severna Park-based theater troupe is making an impressive debut with a high-caliber production of an over-the-top and overlooked musical.

Standing O Productions' founder, Ron Giddings III, took on a challenge with the 1978 show On the Twentieth Century, which ran on Broadway for a year and won five Tony awards, including best score and best book. But it has never had a revival, nor has it become a popular vehicle among community theater groups. The reason may well be that this is a difficult show to produce that boasted a replica of New York's iconic luxury train and featured singers who could handle the show's physical and vocal demands.

In his opening comments at Anne Arundel Community College's Pascal Center, the 27-year-old Giddings acknowledged the contributions of his hard-working crew, including his father, Ron Giddings Jr., who built the complex, movable interior train car set, and his grandmother Elaine Claar, who created many of the costumes.

Giddings apparently has no patience with distraction, but he took a fresh approach to such commonplace matters as reminding audience members to turn off electronic devices, ban taking photographs during the performance and musically pointing out exits: A quartet harmonized those instructions with witty lyrics.

Bringing musical excellence was music director Marsha Goldsmith's nine-piece orchestra, hidden behind the curtain to produce an amazing overture with no visual distractions. This overture is unlike any I know in terms of musical continuity and a unifying theme that weaves the sound of a moving train into a classical-sounding piece.

Lending substance to his directorial efforts is Giddings' ability to draw out actors' unsuspected strengths. Subsequently the audience gets the bonus of discovering a favorite actor's comic talents or unsuspected dancing and singing ability.

Many of us in the audience experienced the joy of discovering a new musical gem. Adapted from a 1934 screwball movie comedy starring John Barrymore and Carole Lombard, On the Twentieth Centur y tells the story of theatrical producer Oscar Jaffe. He's had a string of flops and is forced to sneak on the Chicago-to-New York express train, the 20th Century Limited, to persuade passenger Lily Garland to become his leading lady to assure his producing a hit show. Years earlier, Jaffe had discovered piano accompanist Mildred Plotka, whom he transformed into the famous actress Lily Garland.

Later Jaffe is helped in his unlikely scheme by his partners, Owen O'Malley and Oscar Webb, and by millionaire patent medicine queen and religious fanatic Letitia Primrose.

Created on Broadway by Madeline Kahn, who reportedly found the pace intolerable after two months, the demanding role of Lily Garland in Standing O's production is played by Giddings' longtime friend and Standing O co-founder, Christina Enoch. She handles the role as if she were born to play it, winning us over at her entrance as stressed-out Mildred Plotka being fired by tone-deaf, pitch-plagued Imelda Thornton, deliciously played by Alicia Sweeney.

Enoch has a gift for comedy and possesses an impressive singing voice. Enoch's Lily combines vocal artistry and comic flair in her renditions of "Veronique," "Never" and "Babette." She more than holds her own in duets "Our Private World" and "I've Got it All."

Playing Oscar Jaffe is Annapolis attorney Tom Newbrough, who has lent his talents to many Colonial Players productions. Newbrough is an accomplished singer and delivers a humorous "I Rise Again" in trio with Ronnie Schronce's Owen and John Halmi's Oliver and an operetta-like "Our Private World" duet with Lilly and a funny "Legacy." Newbrough's Oscar Jaffe is alternatively sweet and scheming and always funny.

Local favorite Sue Centurelli, who has been featured in several Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre productions, seems destined to play wacky Letitia Primrose. She delivers Letitia's hilarious number, "Repent," while performing nifty footwork and stealing every scene.

A surprise for me was usual leading man Judson Davis taking a turn at comedy playing vain dim-witted Bruce Granit - Lily's sometime boyfriend and movie co-star. Posing in front of the mirror in his glistening bronze pajamas, Davis becomes a comedian - and he also takes a few turns on the dance floor, exhibiting smooth moves and acceptable lifts.

As O'Malley and Webb, Ronnie Schronce and John Halmi deliver 100 percent in their polished song and dance routines and comedy performances.

All ensemble work, whether in singing or dancing, is polished. Deserving mention is the harmonizing quartet of Greg Bosworth, Giddings, John Halmi and David Thompson, who deliver a humorous "Life is Like a Train."

All that remains is for a sizable audience to come aboard this train to enjoy a thrilling ride On the Twentieth Century.

Standing O will present "On the Twentieth Century" at 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $20. 410-647-8412 or www.standingoproductions.org.

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