Prince George's Little Theatre is opening its 54th season with a stellar production of the 1932 madcap comedy "Twentieth Century," a product of the late, legendary Broadway and Hollywood writing team Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.
"Twentieth Century," which became a successful film in 1934, is credited by PGLT with establishing many of the essential ingredients that characterize the great screwball comedies of the 1930s: "a dizzy dame, a charming but befuddled hero, dazzling dialogue and a dash of slapstick."
After its debut, "Twentieth Century" went on to several reincarnations, including a 1978 a musical adaptation called "On The Twentieth Century." In 2004 playwright Ken Ludwig created a Tony award-winning adaptation refreshed by updated dialogue.
At the recent opening night, the audience at the Little Theatre had no difficulty relating to the 1930s escapist entertainment, the sharp dialogue and fast-paced repartee between the main characters — flamboyant producer-director Oscar Jaffe and his former protege and now Hollywood star Lily Garland.
Aware of Garland's arrival and in need of a boost after a series of flops, Jaffe boards the luxurious Twentieth Century train in Chicago headed for New York City, and is determined to use the trip to lure her away from Hollywood and save his floundering career.
Other passengers include Jaffe's assistants Owen O'Malley, a heavy-drinking supporter, and efficient Ida Webb, as well as Garland's manager and current lover George Smith.
Also on board is Dr. Grover Lockwood, a physician traveling with his mistress, Anita Highland. Lockwood, amusingly played by Greg Anderson, is nervous about traveling with his secret lover, played with sophistication by Crista Campbell. Intent on becoming a playwright, Lockwood approaches Jaffe about his play and later undergoes a transformation when handling Jaffe's medical issues.
Efficiently tending to passenger needs is the capable conductor, played by Aref Dajani, and his cheerful porter, beautifully portrayed by Jennifer Harvey. Also on the train is Matthew Clark, creator of a drug that made him a millionaire before he became a religious zealot. Played by Paul Berry, Clark now attaches stickers preaching salvation to unsuspecting fellow passengers.
Boarding later is rival Broadway producer Max Jacobs, a German Passion Play actor nicknamed "The Beard" and a detective, all three played well by veteran ensemble actor Steven Feder.
Jeff Landau gives a near-flawless performance as Jaffe — exceedingly energetic and hysterically melodramatic — keeping the audience in stitches from beginning to end.
Lighting up the production as movie star Garland is Susan Harper, who seems every inch a glamorous presence and who proves to have comic skills as well, especially in her over-the-top dueling scenes with suitor-agent George Smith and with former flame Jaffe.
Roger Paradis, as Smith, delivers a competent performance with this ensemble. And Jaffe's dedicated assistants — Brian Binney as O'Malley and Kathryn Huston as Webb — show excellent comic timing as they try to support their unpredictable boss.
Setting the scene is critical in this show, and seasoned Prince George's Little Theatre director Keith Brown meets all challenges, as he paces rapid-fire humor delivered by a champion acting crew. Brown also serves as set designer, and creates a reception area and two suite cars that reflect the luxury of the train.
Assisting Brown is set decoration and painting designer Roy Peterson, who creates an air of comfort in plush, rust-tinged crimson upholstery accented by metallic edging. Peterson, who serves as Prince George's Little Theatre president, also recalls the glamour of 1930s films with his choices of music played between acts.
Lighting designer Garrett Hyde brings each scene to brilliant life, and completing the aura of Hollywood glamour is 30-year veteran costume designer Linda Swann. Her creations for Garland are breathtaking, evoking memories of Jean Harlow, the original platinum-blonde star, who in turn influenced Marilyn Monroe.
Swann adapts men's costumes from 1930s male stars, adorning Jaffe with a star-worthy cape and cane; and meticulously researched catalogs to replicate the Pullman Palace Car Co. uniform worn on the Twentieth Century.
To complete the magic, Swann worked with makeup and hair designer Denise Levien to transform Harper into Garland, drawing inspiration from the era when the platinum blonde came to Hollywood with red lipstick and drawn-on eyebrows. Levien was inspired by actors Clark Gable and Errol Flynn for men's styles.
Patrons of Prince George's Little Theatre can lighten their spirits by catching the "Twentieth Century" weekends through Sept. 15. To order tickets, call the box office at 301-937-7458. The theater is located at 16500 White Marsh Park Drive, Bowie.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun