Early in Act Two of Thoroughly Modern Millie, the season opener at the Muny, Millie Dillmount, the sassy string bean from Salina who has descended on 1922 Manhattan with the ferocity of a Kansas twister, finds herself standing with her boyfriend Jimmy on the 20th-floor ledge of a high-rise office building. As they try not to peer down at the city below, Millie and Jimmy sing a tuneful duet called "I Turned the Corner (When I Met You)." Suddenly that otherwise innocuous song sounds positively prophetic, because this week the venerable Muny itself has turned a corner. This high-polished inaugural production under the watchful helm of new executive producer Mike Isaacson is a declaration: Let the word go forth that in Forest Park the commonplace is no longer acceptable. From this week forward, attention to the smallest detail is going to be the high order of the evening.
Everything about this Millie is crisply professional. Even before the show begins, the onstage curtain of enlarged period postcards from 1920s New York is handsomely evocative. When the show begins, Michael Anania's sets are the slickest to be seen at the Muny in recent memory. Thanks to effective use of the Muny's revolving stage, scene changes move smoothly. And here's something new: In the past, actors sometimes faded into the background because their clothes were the same colors as the sets. For Millie (hard though it is to believe) it's as if the costume designer actually talked to the scenic designer ahead of time, because now the coordinated set colors highlight (rather than camouflage) the actors. The entire production is a visual treat.
If the evening is a triumph of style over substance, in part that's because there's not much substance in Millie to begin with. The book is thin; the characters are cardboard. But director Marc Bruni keeps the pace brisk, and Chris Bailey's eye-popping choreography constantly surprises. So much is going on here — white slavery rings, speed-typing tests, Gilbert & Sullivan parodies — that there's no time to sit back and carp. If one joke falls flat, the next might strike your fancy.
The gags are evenly distributed among deft farceurs like Beth Leavel, a cunning clown who as the kidnapper of naive orphans essentially is reprising her daffy caricature of orphan-hating Miss Hannigan in Annie three summers ago (this time with a Chinese accent) and Stephen R. Buntrock as a stuffy office exec. Buntrock lists no prior Muny credits in his bio, but his savvy swagger would have you believe he's been acting here for years. Francis Jue is delightful as a love-struck kidnapper, and Megan McGinnis is an ingénue worthy of his ardor. The clarity in her voice is ideal for Forest Park.
In the title role, Tari Kelly initially seems somewhat like Alice in Wonderland. She's the straight man for all the craziness that swirls past her. But Kelly saves her best for last. Near evening's end she stands alone onstage and belts out "Gimme, Gimme," and the place rocks. Then there is Leslie Uggams. Late in Act One, Uggams is revealed clad in white mink (or ermine; no matter, it's elegant). She moves hardly at all, waits for the light to find her. Then like the spider with the fly, she reels us in as she sings an anthem called "Only in New York." The song itself is forgettable, but you're not likely to forget Uggams' assured star presence or her loving, powder-puff approach to a lyric.
During his opening remarks, executive producer Isaacson announced that, as of Monday night, over the past 93 years 53,225,987 theatergoers have attended Muny productions. "There is no place like the Muny in this nation or in this world," Isaacson enthused, a declaration that might be dismissed as exuberant hyperbole. But then he showed us why that is. The uniquely infectious charms of Thoroughly Modern Millie remind us of why St. Louisans cherish the amphitheater in Forest Park — and why we keep returning, generation after generation.