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Ensemble-rich 'Century' delivers smooth ride

Despite the title, ''On the Twentieth Century" is not a treatise on modernism. It is, in fact, a light-as-air musical whose title refers to a train transporting a number of thespians and other assorted lunatics.

The 1978 collaboration between Cy Coleman and the team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green is also the latest in the successful series of Overture Productions concert versions of musicals.

With all the chamber productions of musicals in Boston these days, what a pleasure it is listening to a full-scale 21-piece orchestra under the expert direction of Michael Joseph let loose with Coleman's bright melodies.

Producer Deb Poppel and director Tony McLean have assembled a first-rate group of singers and dancers who, even with books in hand, bring such sprightliness to the proceedings that they seem to be enjoying themselves as much as the audience.

There are the two stars, George Dvorsky, a North Shore Music Theatre veteran, and Alice Ripley, one of the leads in ''Side Show" among other Broadway musicals. This show, which is also being revived in a New York concert version this weekend, is a variation on ''Kiss Me, Kate" with Dvorsky as producer Oscar Jaffe trying to lure his ex-lover Lily Garland (Ripley) back to his fold.

If there were any scenery Dvorsky would eat it up with acting chops that recall John Lithgow's in ''Dirty Rotten Scoundrels." Unlike Lithgow, Dvorsky can hold, bend, and release a note with the best of them. Ripley has an equally strong but more operatic voice. She could stand to be less of a hard-edged Carmen, but part of that is the role and part is the difficulty of adding nuance when you're reading from a book. Nevertheless, she's a fine actor as well as singer.

McLean, until recently, was head of Broadway in Boston and was tireless in seeing shows at smaller theaters. Little did the actors know they were auditioning for him. McLean has put a terrific ensemble of singers and actors together, many of whom were in New Repertory Theatre's ''Into the Woods" last year.

Of all the locals, Cheryl McMahon is the scene stealer as Letitia Peabody Primrose, a religious fanatic who tells Oscar she'll finance his new show. She brings the house down, as does the sensational quartet of local teenage tap dancers, led by 17-year-old Cyrus Brooks.

McLean also brings real polish to the stage, with ensembles entering and exiting like trains pulling into and leaving the station. There are several nice touches, such as McMahon groping conductor Joseph during ''Repent."

This was not the best book that Comden and Green wrote, which is probably why it doesn't get staged more often, and Coleman's music can flag over the course of nearly three hours. But this is such a joy-filled production that it makes this ''Twentieth Century" worth going back to.

Ed Siegel can be reached at

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