Run of the Millie

The big musical delights and dazzles visually -- too bad there's no real plot

Millie Dillmount, the sassy string bean from Salina who descends on 1922 Manhattan with the ferocity of a Kansas twister, is not only thoroughly modern, she's also incredibly lucky.

How serendipitous it was that Thoroughly Modern Millie opened on Broadway in April 2002 at the tail end of a theater season that, like Millie herself, was noticeably thin. Thankful critics hailed the show as "frisky and fresh-faced," "absolutely delightful," "as bubbly as a glass of Champagne." That's not even the tip of the adulatory iceberg, but you get the drift. The cornucopia of awards that soon followed seemed to validate the reviewers' encomiums. Today, nearly 700 performances later, Thoroughly Modern Millie is a part of the Broadway landscape.

And not just Broadway. Millie was fabricated as an entertainment for all theaters. In due course she is sure to visit the Muny, then Stages St. Louis, then your local community theater or high school. First though, and aptly so, she's making her local debut at the Fox Theatre.

One has to admire the expertise that went into Millie's formulation. Consider, for instance, the crafty decision to stage the infectious title tune ("Everything today is thoroughly modern/Check your personality") in the evening's first ten minutes. Because this is the only familiar holdover song from the 1967 movie on which the show is based, how savvy to get it out of the way early on so that audiences then can focus on the new music score by Jeanine Tesori and Dick Scanlan. The new songs may be unfamiliar, but they're full of pep and pop, blues and jazz. If it's mere familiarity you crave, there are intelligent, often amusing allusions to Victor Herbert, Offenbach, Rossini, Tchaikovsky -- and hey, until you've heard Al Jolson's "Mammy" sung in Chinese, you don't know what you've missed.

Visually, the show delights and dazzles. Crack lighting designer Donald Holder has illuminated it as if the entire production is a bowl of orange sherbet topped by a scoop of raspberry sorbet. Take a moment to watch the myriad light cues. Talk about thoroughly modern; the computer technology at play here is astonishing.

So what's not to be enthusiastic about? Well, for one thing, the plot. Considering that said plot also was less than sturdy in the original movie, one might assume (wrongly) that the musical's creators would gird it up for the stage.

Some background: In the mid-1960s Universal Pictures wanted to make a movie -- any movie -- with Julie Andrews, who was still riding the box-office whirlwind from Mary Poppinsand The Sound of Music. Initially the studio sought to film The Boy Friend, the musical-comedy send-up of the 1920s in which Andrews had made her Broadway debut. But The Boy Friendwas unavailable, so Universal slapped together its own 1920s plot about a brash young flapper (Andrews) who gets involved with a white slavery ring led by the wondrous Beatrice Lillie. As if that wasn't story enough, they added Carol Channing getting shot from a cannon. (What musical is complete without that?)

Obviously, the current Millie is all spoof -- and a stylish spoof at that. (Nobody onstage turns; everyone pivots.) But when that title-song lyric urged, "Check your personality," surely it didn't mean at the stage door. The harsh truth is that -- without the star presence of the likes of Andrews, Channing and Lillie -- it's tough for viewers to sustain interest in one-note characters over a full evening. Onstage, and especially when they're not singing, these characters are cut from cardboard.

Scanlan has better success with his lyrics than with his book. Midway through Act One his rhymes sparkle in "The Speed Test," a delightful takeMoff on a patter song from Gilbert and Sullivan's Ruddigore. Just as you think the show is finally about to rev up, the number ends and the action sputters again. Act Two is infinitely more efficient than Act One; it moves more quickly, there are more laughs and even a surprise or two. Nevertheless, Millie offers an evening of intermittent pleasures rather than the kind of theater alchemy that distills enjoyment into joy.

But hey, this is just one opinion, and a reluctant opinion at that. We all share a vicarious pleasure in Fox Theatricals' success as Millie's principal producer. Like Millie herself, who went off to make her mark in Manhattan, this local company has developed real theater clout, and we are all beneficiaries. (It's nice to have a big splashy musical in town during the holiday season.) But it's also a safe bet that even the officers at Fox Theatricals would pragmatically concede the role that timing plays in the making of a musical hit. Thoroughly Modern Millie is one lucky lady.

 
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