By Karen Isaacs
Thoroughly Modern Millie is a lightweight, fun musical that is getting a very good production at Goodspeed Theater in East Haddam, through July 2.
The show may seem like it was written in the 1920s when it set, but in reality, the show hit Broadway in 2002. The plot is based on the 1967 movie musical that starred Julie Andrews, Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Channing and Beatrice Lillie. For the movie, original music was written by Jimmy Van Huesen with lyrics by Sammy Cahn as well as others; popular music of the 1920s was also an integral part of the score. The show, part camp satire of the period and part serious, was a success and earned a number of Oscar nominations.
The stage version of the show began in 1999 but did not hit Broadway until 2002. The music of the ‘20s was discarded as were most of the songs written specifically for the movie. Jeanine Tesori wrote new songs for the show with lyrics by Dick Scanlan who took over the role of book writer after Dick Morris passed away.
The plot is fairly typical for 1920s shows. A young woman, Millie, arrives in New York City from Kansas, eager to break out of the confines of her small town existence and to enjoy the big city. She is ready for the new haircuts, short skirts, and the freer behaviors that were beginning to sweep the country. She is also determined to find a job as a secretary (or “typewriter” as the women were often called) and to marry her boss.
The secondary plots involve Miss Dorothy Brown, another single young lady but seemingly more shy. She too arrives at the same hotel for young women as Millie. But there is a secret at the Hotel Priscilla presided over Mrs. Meers. It seems that young women who have no family mysteriously and suddenly “check out” never to be heard of again. We quickly discover they have been drugged, abducted and sent to the Far East for the white slave trade.
Millie gets a job working for Trevor Graydon, a handsome (and single) executive, but she also meets Jimmy, a young man who seems less motivated. Of course, we can anticipate what will happen. While Millie has her eye set on Graydon, she unwillingly becomes increasingly attracted to Jimmy. Graydon, meanwhile, meets Miss Dorothy and is immediately smitten. Once Mrs. Meers learns that Miss Dorothy is an orphan, she sets in motion the plot to kidnap and sell Miss Dorothy.
Of course, all ends happily. Neither Jimmy nor Miss Dorothy are exactly what they seem. Mrs. Meers is defeated.
There’s also Muzzy Can Hossmere, a wealthy, older nightclub performer who was married to a very wealthy man. She tries to convince Millie that love is most important and helps Millie, Jimmy and Trevor save Miss Dorothy. Two Chinese brothers work as hotel employees for Mrs. Meers; they are forced to assist her in her evil ways because she has promised to bring their mother to NYC.
Even in 2002, the portrayal of the two Chinese brothers was problematic. While the authors tried to make them less stereotypical “Asian” characters, some elements of that remained. But they did have them speak Chinese, with English translations projected for the audience, and gave one of the brothers a rebellious streak. Ching Ho falls for Miss Dorothy and does everything he can to save her.
The Goodspeed production has a lot going for it. As usual, the production values are terrific. Scenic designer Paul Tate dePoo III has created a wonderful art deco backdrop and an elevator for the hotel. Between him and the lighting design by Rob Denton, you are convinced the elevator is moving. Gregory Dale’s costumes bring you back to the 1920s and the Jazz Age. Jay Hilton’s sound design adds to the overall affect and keeps the sound from blaring.
Denis Jones, a Tony nominee this year, has returned to Goodspeed to direct and choreograph. Once again he has used the small stage adeptly and his tap numbers are terrific.
That brings us to the hard-working cast. The ensemble of dancers and singers, who often play multiple roles is excellent. And certainly the cast all sing and dance very well. But at times, something seems missing.
Taylor Quick, who has her on “new girl in town story,” is Millie. While technically fine, in such a slight musical, the role requires star power; the ability to focus our attention on her and to project a joie de vivre. Unfortunately Quick lacks, at least at this point in her career, those abilities. She just seems like a nice average girl, trying hard. When the show opened on Broadway, Sutton Foster who had been in the ensemble but had taken over the lead during the tryout period, radiated that charisma.
In fact the only performer who made you focus was Edward Watts as Trevor Grayden and that be in part due to his ruggedly handsome looks. Technically Dan DeLuca as Jimmy, Samantha Sturm as Miss Dorothy, Ramona Keller as Muzzy and James Seol as Ching Ho were all good. Loretta Ables Sayre was a rather tame Mrs. Meers; some of the evil intent seemed lacking.
If you want an enjoyable evening of nice tunes, terrific dancing and good performances, you will enjoy Thoroughly Modern Millie. Just don’t expect insightful drama. It is just good, clean fun.
It is at Goodspeed Musical Theatre in East Haddam through July 2. For tickets, visit Goodspeed or call 860-873-8668.