Cygnet boards 'Twentieth Century' with bold design

The famous train that gives its name to the musical “On the Twentieth Century” evokes a time when travel still carried a sense of luxury.

What Cygnet Theatre doesn’t quite have, as it prepares to bring a revival of the show to life, is the luxury of a massive stage on which to build that train.

And yet the Old Town company is finding inventive ways to capture the glamour of the old rail line for its revival of the screwball comedy, whose musical adaptation debuted in 1978 but harks back to a play and movie from the 1930s.

“One of the things we have working to our benefit is because (the set) is smaller, it actually is more like the size of a real cabin on a train,” says Sean Murray, Cygnet’s artistic chief and the production’s director (as well as one of its stars).

In the show’s Broadway productions — including a 2015 revival that starred Kristin Chenoweth — there were “lots of rooms (on the train),” says Murray. “But there are one or two scenes where almost every character winds up in one or two of those drawing rooms.”

So Cygnet is taking a cue from something like “A Night at the Opera,” the classic Marx Brothers movie. As Murray puts it: “Let’s just cram them in and make the lack of space and claustrophobia part of the humor of it. There’s just no room for all these people who are frantically trying to get what they want.”

Murray’s production has something else going for it, though. Make that someone else.

‘On the Twentieth Century’

When: Previews begin Thursday. Opens March 18. 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through April 30.

Where: Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs St., Old Town.

Tickets: About $31-$56 (discounts available)

Phone: (619) 337-1525


That would be Sean Fanning, the startlingly prolific San Diego set designer whose diverse and eye-catching work has been all over local stages of late.

Earlier in 2017, Fanning was named designer of the year by the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle for a series of sets featured in area productions during 2016.

Now he’s bringing that sharp eye to “On the Twentieth Century,” a show whose setting he says speaks to his sensibility.

Fanning locates the look of the musical in the 1930s Streamline Moderne movement, which itself built upon the earlier Art Deco style.

“I’ve long been a fan of the aesthetic,” Fanning says. “Streamline was that really cool place where art and architecture met technology, science and engineering, and blossomed into a cross-disciplinary style.

“Growing up, my dad had long been an enthusiast of classic cars, and some of his favorites showcased that iconic 1930s style. That was a time where the design of cars, trains, airplanes, ships, all was heavily influenced by this movement, and it translated into everything: advertising, radios, toasters, fashion, you name it.”

To enhance the sense of dynamic motion onstage, Fanning is teaming with projection designer Blake McCarty (also a Critics Circle winner this year). McCarty’s imagery will be integrated into the set architecture, with help from what Fanning calls the widest set piece Cygnet has yet deployed.

Amid all the tech wizardry, though, Fanning and Co. are trying to keep in mind the zippy comic spirit of the musical, which was written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green of “Singin’ in the Rain” fame, and composed by Cy Coleman.

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