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A CurtainUp Review
Thoroughly Modern Millie
By David Lohrey
Thoroughly Modern Millie is a fast paced delight destined for bigger things than its present location at the edge of the University of California at San Diego. The La Jolla Playhouse, which currently houses this Broadway-bound extravaganza, has had its share of musical successes, but it is doubtful that anything can outshine this current entertainment under the skillful direction of Michael Mayer.
Many, of course, will compare this present incarnation to the screenplay that inspired it (filmed in 1967). Instead, I recommend a comparison to the generation of Broadway musicals that have dominated musical theater for the past twenty-some years. Think of any one of the musical melodramas of Andrew Lloyd Webber, whose works are the nearest equivalent in musical form to Victorian architecture. Then see Thoroughly Modern Millie. It is like viewing a Frank Lloyd Wright structure for the first time. Sleek, polished, trim, airy, light, dazzling: these are the words this production brings to mind.
Indeed, the entire evening was so light, I felt at first that something must be missing. Then I realized that I felt guilty for not having experienced that awful sense of dread that always accompanies sentimental entertainments such as Cats and Les Miserables. Thoroughly Modern Millie is the antithesis of grand, and brings to mind the ordinary rather than the gothic. It is a musical in the tradition of Pajama Game and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Although set in the roaring '20s, it reminded me a bit more of the '50s, but not of soda fountain culture and switchblades. Rather, it calls forth the corporate comedies of Judy Holliday, Jack Lemmon, or even Doris Day. It definitely belongs to that rather peculiar world of "office" musicals, and is a celebration in song of grand ambition, American-style.
One feels that one has seen and knows the story whether one has in fact done so or not. The settings are classic. Millie (Sutton Foster/Susan Haefner) has come to the big city to make it big on Broadway. She checks into a residence hall for women and immediately starts looking for a job and a man. Meanwhile, the hotel's proprietress Mrs. Meers, played with sinister nonchalance by Pat Carroll, is in cahoots with an oriental white slave racket. She passes over Millie because of her large circle of friends and family, but zeros in on Miss Dorothy Brown (Sarah Uriarte Berry), a small town heiress masquerading as an orphaned commoner. As Mrs. Meers and her sidekicks Bun Foo (Francis Jue) and Ching Ho (Stephen Sable) attempt to kidnap Miss Brown, Millie sets about getting on the good side of Trevor Graydon, her new boss (memorably portrayed by the dashing Marc Kudisch).
Thoroughly Modern Millie is, obviously, deliciously inane. The plot makes about as much sense as a Charlie Chan episode. But who cares? The whole thing rises or falls on style not substance.
The sets designed by David Gallo are as sleek as a Packard sedan and are made to move and reassemble as gracefully as the rather smashing assembly of dancers, well-choreographed by Rob Ashford. But the credit for this rather wonderful swirl of color and song clearly belongs to Michael Mayer who makes the show move with a speed and flourish rarely seen in musical theatre since the advent of flying helicopters and the mechanized light show.
All the energy is to be found in the performers. Sutton Foster and her understudy Susan Haefner have created stunning Millies, who seem literally to burst with energy. Sutton Foster, it should be noted, is said to be a remarkable talent. In the performance I attended, Susan Haefner performed beyond expectation. If I was initially disappointed to miss Sutton Foster, by the end of the evening I felt as did the audience that Haefner had turned in a remarkable performance. Only Marc Kudisch who plays the office manager Trevor Graydon had the energy to match that of Miss Haefner. When he finally falls for Miss Dorothy Brown there is enough electricity created to put a stop to Southern California's rolling blackouts.
On the down side, the original Richard Morris story as adapted by Dick Scanlan is not perfect. The work's reach seems much greater than the present ending would suggest. The music as a whole is not memorable though the overall sound is right, and every song serves a purpose. It is an evening of pleasant songs which fail to gather force. One misses that gripping, rousing signature piece. At present, this absence is made up for by Mayer's spectacular direction and his exuberant cast. In weaker hands, Thoroughly Modern Millie might be nothing more than Merely Modern Millie.
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