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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

material.

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

costumes.

"Millie" tries hard to be "Modern," but she only turns

out to be modish. Two stars. Maybe you should have stayed home.

— Simon Saltzman

Thoroughly Modern Millie, Marquis Theater, 1535 Broadway,

New York. $60 to $95. Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200.


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