I admit it.
I’m a lifelong theater buff who had never seen a production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” Why? I think it’s because it never had the appeal of the musical “Oklahoma,” the grand staging of “Les Miserables,” or the memorable tunes of “South Pacific.”
After seeing the Maine State Music Theatre’s production of “Millie” ably directed and choreographed by Marc Robin, I can’t believe what I’ve been missing. Here’s a musical that’s charming and campy, full of cornball fun with great costumes, tap-dancing numbers, and cartoonish characters that find themselves in scenes that resemble TV sitcom situations.
“Thoroughly Modern Millie” is a lighthearted (rated PG for the entire family) show with a genuine flavor of the 1920s in the city of Manhattan. The story begins with Millie Dillmount, played by Holly Howard, a wide-eyed innocent arriving in The Big Apple after leaving small town Salina, Kan. Her newfound goal is to become a “modern,” free-spirited “flapper” ready to find a wealthy boss to marry for convenience, not love.
Of course, nothing seems to go according to plan as Millie meets her boss, Trevor Graydon, played ever-so-perfectly by Curt Dale Clark, who has business and a love interest – other than Millie – on his mind. She soon meets a rich heiress, Dorothy Brown, played by Ellie Mooney, whose self-important antics give Millie a look at how the other half lives.
She bumps into – literally – a boy next-door, Jimmy Smith, played by Patrick O’Neill, who falls in love with Millie, but who doesn’t have the wealth and status she’s looking for.
Millie also finds herself taken into the confidence of Muzzy Van Hossmere, played by Cheryl Howard, a sultry speak-easy singer who teaches her the virtues of marrying for love, not convenience.
And in what is probably the most politically incorrect plotline in any musical you’ve ever seen (oddly enough, it is so outrageous that you overlook its incorrectness), Millie finds a has-been American actress who poses as Mrs. Meers, played by Susan Cella, a Chinese matron running a seedy hotel for innocent just-arrived-in-the-city girls. She’s in cahoots with two Chinese brothers, Ching Ho and Bun Foo, played by Ethan Le Phong and Vincent Rodriguez III, respectively, running a white slavery scheme that sells the innocent girls directly to China.
Unlike the orchestra of MSMT’s “West Side Story” that I dubbed amplified and electronic, the “Millie” orchestra is robust with a rich Broadway musical sound. The jazzy score keeps “Millie” humming, with plenty of big song-and-dance numbers balanced by solos.
The most intriguing number of the night is “The Speed Test,” a satire of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta mixed in with double time tap-dancing. Cheryl Howard’s numbers, as Muzzy, are vibrant and sensual, performed in Lena Horne-type styling.
Mooney and Clark hit a comic high in “I’m Falling in Love With Someone.” You’ll bust a gut laughing.
Holly Howard’s tunes, as Millie, simply sparkle. With her high energy, winning smile and great voice, she “owns” the part of Millie Dillmount.
The sleek, streamlined art deco sets by Robert A. Kovach and the costumes by Irene Kay Peterson give this show a 1920s feel that’s dazzling to the eye.
Dan Marois is a writer, producer and actor with Main Street Entertainment and Mystery for Hire. He may be reached at [email protected]