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A CurtainUp Review
Thoroughly Modern Millie
By Elyse Sommer
If you're amongst those who have grumbled about dark, too operatic musicals, Thoroughly Modern Millie, offers a thoroughly enjoyable antidote. Its aim is to be kick-up-your-heels,entertaining. Towards that end it offers up lots of peppy singing and dancing, neon bright costumes and a reliably appealing plot about a small town girl fulfilling her dreams of modernity in Manhattan circa the jazzy 1920s. Like The Producers, the inspirational source is a 1960s movie. Like that mega-hit, Millie manages to sidestep its political incorrectness with goofy, spoofy humor.
Before, you get your hopes too high, however, Millie is quite a few notches below Mel Brooks' irrepressible wit and originality. This applies to the source of the shows, one (The Producers) attaining cult movie status, the other making much less of a splash despite a star-studded cast, headed by Julie Andrews and also featuring Carol Channing, Bea Lillie and Mary Tyler Moore. In fact this "brand new musical" has considerably more sparkle and bounce than its source. It's fun, funny and inventively staged but, with its stick-to-the-ears main number and many of the musical standouts borrowed from existing sources, it's also more than tad short on originality.
Its shortcomings notwithstanding, Thoroughly Modern Millie has enough going for it to insure a lengthy stay at the Marquis -- the same theaterwhere not too many years ago Julie Andrews made a last and much praised appearance in another staged version of one of her films Victor/Victoria. For starters it can easily be enjoyed by the whole family (I'd say, ages 10 and upward).
Chief among the show's considerable assets is talented newcomer, Sutton Foster, bringing a mile-wide smile, nimble feet, and a belting voice to the starring role. She is supported by an expert and energetic cast that includes two Tony-worthy comic supporting performances by Harriet Harris and Marc Kudish. But that's not all. Rob Ashford's choreography is unfailingly lively and at times inspired (the best example of the latter being a type-and-tap number that's on a par the walkers used as choreographic props in The Producers). David Gallo's Art Deco flavored ode to Manhattan scenery includes, amongst other inventions, a working elevator -- well, it works when you break into a tap dance as you enter it. Martin Pakledinaz's costumes run the eye candy gamut from handkerchief edged skirts and cloche hats to brazenly brassy magic marker colors to the look-alike black and white office getups that reflect the prisonlike workplace environment.
The multiple plot strands are adeptly juggled by director Michael Mayer who has added numerous campy touches like bringing in a creatively blocked George Gershwin (Noah Racey) and Dorothy Parker (Julie Connors) as the foil for a social faux pas by Millie. The central figure around whom all the plot complications swirl is Millie Dillmount (Sutton Foster).
Millie comes to New York from Kansas to pursue her dream of becoming "thoroughly modern" and marrying for money instead of love. She meets and is attracted to poor, fun-loving Jimmy (Gavin Creel), goes to work for pompous Mr. Trevor Graydon (Mark Kudisch) with every intention of marrying him. When not typing up a storm at the Sincere Trust Insurance Company, Millie befriends her fellow residents at a hotel for aspiring actresses.
The subplot swirls around the hotel proprietress, the mysterious and sinister Mrs. Meers (Harriet Harris in a dark wig that emphasizes an uncanny resemblance to one of movieland's great comediennes, Rosalind Russell) who employs Ching Ho (Ken Leung) and Bun Foo (Francis Jue), to kidnap any orphans checking into her hotel as part of her sideline dealings in white slavery (what they really steal is every scene in which they appear). One of the potential victims is Millie's new friend, the genteel heiress Miss Dorothy Brown (Angela Christian). Millie also falls under the protective wing of Muzzy Van Hossmere (Sheryl Lee Ralph), a cabaret singer Ó la Josephine Baker who made exactly the kind of marriage Millie has in mind.
Of course these plot developments are no more believable than Mrs. Meers' oriental get-up (in a nod to political correctness she's a very American disgruntled actress and the two brothers are not only nice guys, but heroes). Everything that happens is strictly in the interest of the comedy and to provide opportunities to break into solos, duets, trios and full company song and dance routines. Even factual errors -- like Jimmy inviting Millie to a night Yankee game when there were no night games until the 1930s-- seem immaterial.
The most inspired musical interludes are, as already indicated, those using pre-existing music, freshened with Dick Scanlan's amusing lyrics. The cleverest is the office scene in which the deliciously overbearing Mark Kudisch puts Millie through her steno and typing paces with "The Speed Test", a nod to Gilbert & Sullivan deftly updated by Scanlan and justifiably given the full company treatment. Kudisch is also terrifically funny when, smitten at first sight by Miss Dorothy (who looks a bit like operetta queen Jeannette MacDonald) he bursts into a Victor Herbert love song as are Ken Leung and Francis Jue singing about the mother they want to bring to America to the tune of "Mammy" and with overhead subtitles. Jeanine Tesori's contribution by way of new songs and additional music, is most noteworthy for Millie's big second act showstopper "Gimme, Gimme " and the production number based on Tchaikowsky's "Nutcracker Suite." in the Tie-One-On Speakeasy. New or old, the music, is well orchestrated by Doug Besterman and Ralph Burns and zestfully (but not deafeningly) performed.
On my way out of the theater I saw a street vendor with with huge bouquets of multi-colored cotton candy. That's Thoroughly Modern Millie I thought -- a colorful, fluffy confection.
For a review of the show in Los Angeles over a year ago, go here
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