Review: ‘On the Twentieth Century’ by Blank Theatre is a rare chance to hop aboard this musical

I’ve always fervently wished the 20th Century Limited was still a thing. The art deco New York Central Railroad train ran nightly between Grand Central Terminal in New York City and Chicago’s LaSalle Street Station (leave at 6 p.m., arrive at 9 a.m.), although the musical “On the Twentieth Century” refers to Union Station. But the 16-hour travel time was correct (in the 1930s anyway) and, during their trip on what was widely regarded as the greatest train in the world between the two greatest cities in America, Broadway stars, gangsters and ordinary folks played poker, gabbed, danced, drank, slept and made deals.

Spirit Airlines to LaGuardia really is not the same.

The train was immortalized in 1932 by a Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur stage play, which in 1934 became the Howard Hawks movie “Twentieth Century,” with Carole Lombard and John Barrymore. And then in 1978, the great Broadway writers Betty Comden and Adoph Green teamed up with Cy Coleman for the musical “On the Twentieth Century,” using much the same screwball story of the relationship between an actress, Lily, and an impecunious Broadway producer, Oscar, who wants Lily not just for his show but for his life. Further comic relief comes from a character named Letitia Primrose, a wacky traveling heiress whose cash is much in demand.

One rarely sees this show anymore; I last reviewed it on Broadway in 2015 with Kristin Chenoweth and Peter Gallagher. But it’s up in Chicago this spring, courtesy of the Blank Theatre Company, which is stuffing the whole experience into a brand new black-box theater in the lovely Bramble Arts Center, a charming and much-needed second-floor venue in Andersonville, where I often hope to return. The stars in the three leading roles are Maxwell J. DeTogne, Karylin Veres and the very funny Alicia Berneche as Letitia.

The space seats only about 60 and it’s tight for the actors so don’t expect epic tap numbers for the porters, a huge orchestra or fancy digital vistas of the Midwest countryside rushing by. The show, accompanied by a four-piece band, is more akin to a concert staging, albeit with witty costumes (from Cindy Moon) and a little fun dance (choreographed by Jen Cupani). But if, like me, you are a Cy Coleman fan, here’s a rare chance to hear one of his best scores deftly sung by young voices and this consistently likable and earnest troupe (they’re still non-Equity at Blank) makes for very pleasant company. There’s a zesty comic sensibility on display that’s a fine match for Comden and Green’s book, too.

All in all, here’s a trip for retro Broadway fans who like their musicals up close and yet roaring down the track.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

Review: “On the Twentieth Century” (3 stars)

When: Through June 9

Where: Blank Theatre Company at Bramble Arts Loft, 5545 N. Clark St.

Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

Tickets: $35 at