ThoroughlyModernMillie, Book by Richard Morris and Dick Scanlan (original story and screenplay by Richard Morris), New Music by Jeanine Tesori, New Lyrics by Dick Scanlan. Directed by Todd Underwood. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Miss Flannery (Sarah Mae Banning, center) and Millie Dillmount (Bridget Elise Yingling, in red) lead the office staff in "Forget About the Boy"; photo: Jesse DeGroodt
"Goodbye, good goody girl, you're fading and how!"
Thoroughly Modern Millie is just about as old-fashioned a musical as you can find these days. Plot: Impressionable young girl from the midwest comes to New York City looking for a rich husband, meets young man and young girl, goes to a high society party, foils a bunch of white slavers and marries - a different man than she intends to wed. Blackout. In 1967 this plot formed the basis of a wonderful movie (of the same name) starring a trio of fabulous women: Julie Andrews, Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Channing. It brought a whole new look and sound to the "silly." It is really hard to beat that original troupe in a wonderful collection of new and old songs with situations that still bring chuckles to the throat when I speak or even think about them.
Then, in the early part of this new century, a group of people transformed the film into a "new" musical which accidentally made a star out of a chorus girl (different plot, different show) named Sutton Foster. The show went on to win six Tony Awards including Best Musical (it must have been a lean year) and Foster went on to star in a half dozen wonderful new shows. Dick Scanlan made a lot of subtle and not-so-subtle changes to the book of the show, changing the society widow (Carol Channing) into a black woman, making the villainous Mrs. Mears (Beatrice Lillie) into an out-of-work chorus girl, and transforming the hero Trevor Graydon into a prudish dandy who cannot win the affection of the girl he loves. These alterations do not enhance the play. Neither does turning Millie into an annoying, sometimes downright bitchy broad. In the current production of the show at the Mac-Haydn Theatre in Chatham, New York, the excellent cast of actors does everything they can to rescue and resuscitate this musical, but there's just too much working against it for them to fully succeed.
Bridget Elise Yingling does a wonderful tap-dancing job as Millie in spite of the odds against her. Rather than being flirty in a cold shoulder way, she is generally made to be outright rude and mean-spirited instead. As talented as Ms. Yingling clearly is the odds are against getting an audience to root for her, even secretly. She sings and dances wonderfully but her acting is strange, often leaving us without resource to reaction; she is not mean enough, or sweet enough, or genuine enough ever. We applaud her "Jimmie" but we don't believe she means what she sings.
Miss Dorothy is played here by Grace Kidd who brings considerable vocal talent to the stage and when she launches into her part of "Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life" and "I'm Falling in Love With Someone," both by Victor Herbert from "Naughty Marietta" the sound of her voice is heartwarmingly spectacular. Kidd is an asset to this show but even that doesn't rectify the terrible choices the book writers have made for her character. Abducted and in need of rescue by a Hero, she is instead the victim of a villain who reforms. It is simply not as satisfying as it would be to have her rescued from a fate worse than death in the historic nick of time. Ah well, she is still worth the saving for Miss Kidd's talents must survive to sing another day, and another role.
Yvette Clark makes a remarkable Muzzy. She dazzles in costumes that truly define what it means to be beaded in the 1920s. She sings her two major songs with guts, gusto and pizzazz. She tells her story while strutting her stuff and is almost the equal of Miss Channing in her own special way. Clark makes this outing almost worthwhile.
Holding up her end of the worthwhile bargain is Monica M. Wemitt as the evil Mrs. Mears. . .or is she simply misguided because her career took a downward spin? Wemitt is delightful in her solo "They Don't Know," a Tesori/Scanlan outing that isn't bad. Later in the show she outs herself with Muqin, a song whose surtitles make it very worthwhile and she, it needs to be said, makes the whole thing a joy. The ladies in this show really work to make it wonderful.
Gabe Belyeu is Mr. Trevor Graydon and he pulls off a credible performance in a role that is poorly rewritten by Scanlan. Belyeu is too good a performer to be plunked down into this thankless role.
Jimmie, the younger hero of the piece, is played with sincerity and a slightly idiotically mean-spirited tone by Conor Fallon. His meeting with Millie, ordinarily a Hollywoodized "meet-cute" situation comes off as unpleasant and insufferable. It take a while to warm up to him, but ultimately he wins over the audience and Millie and turns into the charmer he ought to be.
Miss Flannery, the office manager, is played with unusual humor and style by a lovely actress named Sarah Mae Banning. The girls in the ensemble do a lovely job with their material and the boys do the same. Colin Pritchard's choreography is a delight, not an easy task with so many people on such a small stage.
Todd Underwood has seemingly put an emphasis on the darker side of these characters, but perhaps the fault lies in the writing and not in the direction. Underwood's staging is both intelligent and facile and the shows move along at a brisk and delightful speed, still coming in at two hours and forty minutes. But that's the 1920s for you: fast paced and brilliantly economical.
I can't say that I didn't enjoy "Thoroughly Modern Millie" but it did make me long to see the old film again (which I will do this week) and really enjoy the people, the situations and the outcome. Nothing beats live performance, naturally, and this show has the verve and the kick to keep you dancing in your seat. It's just that when the music stops you're back with the same annoying people.
Monica M. Wemitt as Mrs. Mears; photo: Jesse DeGroodt
Bridget Elise Yingling as Millie and Conor Fallon as Jimmie; photo: Jesse DeGroodt
Yvette Clark as Muzzy Van Hossmere; photo: Jesse DeGroodt
Thoroughly Modern Millieplays through September 6 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre, 1925 Route 203 in Chatham, NY. For tickets and information call the box office at 518-392-9292 or go on line at www.machaydntheatre.org.