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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the June 5, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Broadway: Tony-winning `Millie’
In typical fashion, a big and splashy new musical arrived
just in time to be eligible for a Tony nomination. "Thoroughly
Modern Millie" is indeed big and splashy, if not all that new.
It succeeded in capturing no less than 11 nominations and six awards
on Tony Awards night, Sunday, June 2.
With the exeption of "Urinetown," really new musicals are
in short supply this year. If you discount the thoroughly disliked
"Sweet Smell of Success" and "Thou Shalt Not," and
the thoroughly recycled ingredients of "Mamma Mia" and "One
Mo’ Time," "Millie" came up smelling like a breath of,
if not exactly fresh, then perfumed air. This re-envisioned stage
version of a big budget but not very successful 1967 film musical
of the same name (starring Julie Andrews, Mary Tyler Moore, Carol
Channing, and Beatrice Lillie) had a lot going for it — mainly
not much competition.
But its strengths — the sheer expenditure of vitality and enthusiasm,
colorful settings and costumes, and dancing and singing 1920s flappers
— are offset by a distressing lack of humor, wit, and cleverness.
Except for the title song (by James Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn) and
other melodic infusions by others, including Gilbert and Sullivan
and Victor Herbert, composer Jeanine Tesori has written what is best
described as a bright, serviceable score. It owes a great deal to
the snappy lyrics of Dick Scanlan. But Scanlan, who also doctored
up the original nuttier screenplay by the late Richard Morris, seems
hard-pressed to mine the comic potential despite keeping in large
chunks of the original.
Rather than attempting to ride on the coyly pastiche charms of "The
Boy Friend" (the 1954 musical that introduced Julie Andrews to
Broadway), or attempt a campy valentine to operetta such as "Little
Mary Sunshine," "Millie" has the determination to reflect
the genuine character of a 1920s musical. For that we get our share
of the Charleston and some "cute" characters, beginning with
the title character, played with spirited pizzazz by newcomer Sutton
Foster, the Tony winner for best actress in a musical. Foster, who
created the role in the show’s La Jolla Playhouse premiere, brings
plenty of obligatory charm and voh-do-dee-oh-do to Millie. When Foster
smiles (notable for its frequency), you will notice more than a passing
resemblance to Mary Tyler Moore. And this kid can tap.
Millie’s plans to find and marry a rich man is directed at Trevor
Graydon (Marc Kudish), her stiff-necked, all business, no-play, no-clue
boss. Her plans are complicated by the attentions of Jimmy (Gavin
Creel), a dapper young womanizer, and by Millie’s dippy chorus girlfriend
and roommate Dorothy (Angela Christian), who unwittingly strikes the
right note(s) with Trevor.
But something is going on in the rooming house for single women where
Millie lives. Single women are disappearing without a trace. Mrs.
Meers (Harriet Harris), a Chinese woman of questionable authenticity,
manages the rooming house. She is actually an embittered ex-actress
running a white slave ring. Harris, who is remembered for her sparkling
performance in "The Man Who Came to Dinner," is at a loss
how far East or West to go in her send-up of Bea Lillie’s spin-off
of Anna May Wong. It’s a spoof gone sour.
Although Harris gets the gong, she is amusingly abetted in her abductions
by Ching Ho (Ken Leung) and Bun Foo (Francis Jue), two personable
young Chinese men with a yen for singing their songs in Chinese (with
projected English subtitles, and very funny). Also embroiled in the
madcap mix of music and mystery is Muzzy Van Hossmere (Sheryl Lee
Ralph), a wealthy society matron. Ralph, who is returning to Broadway
for the first time since her Tony nomination for "Dreamgirls,"
has an undeniable presence, but she is sadly burdened with mediocre
The problem with "Millie," is that it is trying to be the
real thing in the wrong way. Most musical comedies of the ’20s and
’30s were driven by jokes, gags, and larger-than-life stars, not to
mention scores by the likes of Berlin, the Gershwins, Rodgers and
Hart, and Cole Porter (to name a few). This musical seems driven by
desperation. No one is expecting the resurrection of that golden era,
but it seems a shame that director Michael Mayer couldn’t see the
dead spots that punctuate so much of the first act. "Millie"
only begins to catch fire in the second act with the meeting of Kudisch
and Christian, who hilariously capture the rapturous romantics of
Victor Herbert’s "I’m Falling in Love With Someone."
From this point, with Kudisch and Christian leading the others to
the frenetic and thoroughly romantic conclusion, Mayer seems to have
found the right pace and the style. Except for the obligatory Charleston
and variations thereof, choreographer Rob Ashford doesn’t go much
beyond the derivative. Lighting designer Donald Holder makes sure
we don’t miss any corner of David Gallo’s candy-colored settings,
or any spangle or tassel on Martin Pakledinaz’ conspicuously vivacious
"Millie" tries hard to be "Modern," but she only turns
out to be modish. Two stars. Maybe you should have stayed home.
— Simon Saltzman
New York. $60 to $95. Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200.
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