NEW YORK — The effervescent revival of the 1978 musical comedy "On the Twentieth Century" that just steamed into the American Airlines Theatre marks a bewitching Broadway return for Tony- and Emmy Award-winner Kristen Chenoweth as 1930s Hollywood diva Lily Garland.
The Roundabout Theatre production that opened Sunday night is a sizzling, sumptuous entertainment that pairs Chenoweth with a suavely roguish Peter Gallagher. Chenoweth is a petite powerhouse in the prima donna role of Lily, originated on Broadway by Madeline Kahn.
Director Scott Ellis has reimagined the show with kinetic, retro-perfect sophistication and style. The original 1978 musical comedy had a book and witty lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and a rhythmic score by Cy Coleman that spoofed over-the-top musical styles, notably operetta.
"Century" is filled with delightfully improbable madcap action, flamboyant musical numbers and polished, inventive choreography by Warren Carlyle. There's even an adorable quartet of tap-dancing porters. Chenoweth glamorously milks each comical cliche while her opera-trained voice trills and soars in song after song.
Golden Globe-winner Gallagher plays duplicitous theater producer Oscar Jaffee, Lily's Pygmalian-like former lover who discovered and molded her into a star. Oscar's career is fast losing steam after a string of failed plays, while Lily's continued to have wealth and success after their breakup.
To stave off bankruptcy, he plots to sign her to a nonexistent new play about Mary Magdalene while they barrel along on the luxurious Twentieth Century Limited train from Chicago to New York.
Gallagher shades his comedy with bluster and poignancy, as Oscar braves the ups and downs of getting Lily to sign a contract. In rueful reminiscences about their tumultuous past, Gallagher provides a handsome rendition of the bittersweet solo "Because of Her," and the two stars sing wonderfully together, especially in the lovely ballad, "Our Private World."
In between high-spirited train station scenes on the sleek Art Deco set, Chenoweth belts her heart out in splashy, gorgeously period-costumed numbers like "Veronique" (set in the French Revolution) and "Babette" (involving a decadent British Mayfair party). She physically soars too, frequently lifted aloft or carried around like a doll.
Much of the screwball slapstick is set inside the luxury train car, with Andy Karl displaying comically preening narcissism as Lily's handsome, hulky, but not-so-bright movie-star boyfriend. Mark Linn-Baker and Michael McGrath display fine vaudevillian chops as Oscar's longtime sidekicks, especially when they sing "Five Zeros," an ode to the joys of money.
Mary Louise Wilson is gleefully scene-stealing as Oscar's unexpected benefactress, religious-minded Letitia Primrose. Wilson brings down the house with her warbling lecture "Repent," impishly warning the audience that, "Across the land, in every home" there are "dirty doings going on." She pops up ever-more drolly in unexpected places once Letitia's big secret is revealed.
Kevin Stites leads the lively orchestra with brio, and the beautiful costumes are courtesy of William Ivey Long. David Rockwell is the mastermind behind the fantastical set, in which parts of the locomotive and stations glide around like pieces of a giant train set. All the elements of this "Century" combine to make a musical, manic train ride that truly puts the "loco" in locomotion.