In Case You Missed It: The Heidi Chronicles Is a Hit and a Miss and Kristin is the Critics' Darling

News   In Case You Missed It: The Heidi Chronicles Is a Hit and a Miss and Kristin is the Critics' Darling
Kristin Chenoweth has had an odd career. She is rightly considered a top-tier, 21st-century Broadway musical theatre star. Yet her Broadway career contains a single hit (Wicked) among several misses (Epic Proportions, revivals of The Apple Tree and Promises, Promises). This week, however, her batting average went up, when her performance as Lily Garland in Roundabout Theatre Company’s Broadway revival of On the Twentieth Century was hailed by critics as pure theatrical magic.

This is the first Broadway revival of the comic-opera score by Cy Coleman, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, based on the Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur play about flamboyant Broadway producer Oscar Jaffe and his attempts to get his former protege Lily, now a movie star, to sign on for a new show. All the action takes place aboard a luxury train ride from Chicago to New York. Her co-star is Peter Gallagher. Critics had some nice things to say about the script in general, in a provisional way, and were impressed with Gallagher. But mainly the notices were all about that ball of talent named Chenoweth.

“The stylish state-of-the-art locomotive by David Rockwell gleams in brilliant Art Deco glory,” wrote the Daily News. “But that's nothing compared to the practically nuclear glow that comes off Kristin Chenoweth, whose singular talent and skills are tailor-made for a role originated on Broadway in 1978 by Madeline Kahn. Chenoweth is a stick of blond dynamite, a virtuoso comedian and singer. She uses her petite body, ample bosom and middle finger for a laugh. She hits every high C in the joyous and eclectic score that pushes the plot along expertly.”

“This Century brings Ms. Chenoweth and Mr. Gallagher back to Broadway, where they can demonstrate the subtleties of being larger than life,” said the Times. “These fine performers have been largely confined to television screens in recent years. And they grab the chance to chew (and devour) some real live scenery — and in Ms. Chenoweth's case, hit pretty much every note on the scale, musical and otherwise — with the ecstatic vengeance of genies let out of their bottles.”

New York magazine expressed the same sentiment, albeit in a more negative, roundabout way: “There are a million big reasons that On the Twentieth Century, the 1978 musical by Cy Coleman and Comden and Green, shouldn't work today: It's profoundly silly, tonally tricky, too big for the market, and a very hard sing. Indeed, the Roundabout's delicious revival at the American Airlines crashes intermittently into most of those problems. But there's nevertheless one small reason — about four-foot-eleven — it works anyway: Kristin Chenoweth. She is a comic genius in a role ideally suited to her gifts.”

The Roundabout has been looking for a hit. They’ve got one (if they can keep their stars).


Also opening this week was the first Broadway revival of Wendy Wasserstein's Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Heidi Chronicles, following the life of feminist art historian Heidi Holland. It opened at the Music Box Theatre March 19 following previews that began Feb. 23.

The Broadway revival features "Mad Men" star Elisabeth Moss, Jason Biggs, and Bryce Pinkham. Pam MacKinnon directs. It is the first Broadway production of a Wasserstein play since the playwright’s death in 2006. Speaking of the play’s central, second-act monologue, the Times wrote, “Ms. Moss, her eyes moistening even as her voice remains strong, delivers this beautiful speech with a grace that grows stronger as Heidi's peppery, self-aware humor gives way to lacerating honesty. Those are, as it happens, key notes in Wasserstein's durable play, and Ms. Moss and her collaborators in this sterling production sing them forth with a revitalizing warmth.”

Elisabeth Moss and Jason Biggs
Elisabeth Moss and Jason Biggs Photo by Joan Marcus

Beyond the Times, most reviews were mixed. The big questions on reviewers’ minds seemed to be: How has the play aged? and How is Moss in it? And on both matters, critics were, frankly, all over the place.

AP thought, “Wasserstein's dialogue... crackles with wit, ironies and pointed social commentary.” The conservatively minded Wall Street Journal moaned, “I was struck by how poorly The Heidi Chronicles had aged when I saw the Berkshire Theatre Festival's excellent 2006 production, and the new Broadway revival...fails to make a compelling case for taking Wasserstein's best-remembered play any more seriously today.” USA Today thought, “Twenty-six years later, in director Pam MacKinnon's sensitive, impassioned new production, Heidi's struggles can still seem dishearteningly familiar.” Variety considered the revival “long-overdue,” but the production “shoddy.”

As for Moss, said, “I think Elisabeth Moss was born to play Heidi Holland on Broadway. She couldn't possibly have had better preparation than her role as Peggy Olson.” Hollywood Reporter didn’t quite agree, saying “Moss' opaque performance contributes to keep her at a distance. So it's a testament to the 'Mad Men' star's appeal that she's ultimately so affecting in the role — even if the emotional rush is a long time coming.” AP considered her “a luminous, quizzical Heidi,” and Variety thought her “effortlessly endearing — and wonderfully real — as the brainy, mixed-up heroine,” while Time Out New York termed her “appealing, but nebulous” and The Daily News called her “middling.” ***

Everyone in the theatre knows about the Daniel Sullivan tradition at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. The man has directed a play every summer for the past five years. Well, now it’s time to get accustomed to the regular returns of actors Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Hamish Linklater and Lily Rabe, who have steadily been transforming themselves into the 2010s' answer to Charles Durning, James Earl Jones and Meryl Streep (all one-time mainstays of the park).

Rabe has appeared at the Delacorte three times in the past five seasons, in The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It and last year’s Much Ado About Nothing. Linklater acted in Much Ado, as well as The Comedy of Errors, also in 2014, and The Merchant of Venice and The Winter’s Tale. Ferguson acted with Linklater in Merchant, Winter’s Tale and Comedy, as well as A Midsummer Night’s Dream back in 2007.

Jesse Tyler Ferguson
Jesse Tyler Ferguson Photo by Robert Mannis

All three will be back in 2015. Ferguson is slated to play Trinculo in The Tempest (starring Sam Waterston, while Linklater and Rabe will team up again on Cymbeline to play Posthumus Leonatus/Cloten and Imogen, respectively.

Why not start a repertory company already?

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