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.
The plot of “On the Twentieth Century” follows a down-at-the-heels theatrical producer named Oscar Jaffee (played by Murray), who cons his way aboard the train in order to persuade his old flame, movie star Lily Garland (Eileen Bowman), to do one more play with him.
That quest is complicated by the presence of an oddball evangelist (Melinda Gilb) and a host of other comic characters. (The show’s cast also includes Bryan Banville, Michael Cusimano, Melissa Fernandes, Steve Gunderson, Amy Perkins and Deborah Wanger.)
Fanning says that “the phrase I’ve been repeating to myself throughout this whole process is ‘form follows function,’ and that’s a really important aspect of the work.
“Everything about this set is intended to allow the screwball comedy to germinate within the finite confines of the train. The layout of doors, for example, is integral to the action of the play. The design of the floor works to demarcate the imagined downstage edge of the train car, and gives us a playing area beyond this, where the flashback or musical moments can then ‘overflow’ from the parameters of the train.”
“On the Twentieth Century” represents a bit of a milestone for Fanning and Cygnet: 10 years ago this month, the designer did his first set for the company, which was then based in a smaller space in the Rolando District that’s now home to Moxie Theatre.
Murray more or less “discovered” Fanning after sending a plea for a San Diego State student to do design work on Cygnet’s 2007 production of “The Matchmaker” (Fanning was studying there at the time).
Fanning now holds an MFA from the university, and has designed about three dozen Cygnet sets as well as working at other companies around town.
His path into theater and design was paved in part by a necessity to rely on the visual. Fanning was born with what’s called bilateral sensorineural hearing loss, and says that without the use of hearing aids he’s almost completely deaf.
“From childhood there’s always been a slight sense of being outside the world looking in,” he says. “I think with a heightened visual sense I had always wanted to become an artist, and with language as the stepping-stone into the world, the next logical place to go was theater.”
When he attended plays with his mom as a youngster, “I didn’t always understand what people were saying, so I really did spend a lot of time looking at the set,” Fanning adds. “When I have a conversation, I usually miss every third or fourth word, and sneakily use context to fill in the blanks and work out what’s being said very quickly.
“Attending the theater in this same fashion, I found that I would use the visual context of the setting and design elements to help me better understand what I was missing in the story. If the set helped with this, it was to me the mark of a good design.”
Sitting in the seats at Cygnet before a recent rehearsal, Murray — a devoted traveler who took many cues for directing “On the Twentieth Century” from life aboard classic conveyances such as the Queen Mary — listens to Fanning talk about his techniques and inspirations.
Fanning responds to a question about how he manages to come up with so many set designs so quickly by saying that (with Murray’s encouragement) he has gradually learned to trust his first instincts rather than second-guessing himself.