By Tina Arth
When Thoroughly Modern Millie took home the Best Musical Tony Award for 2002, the competition was not all that fierce. Mamma Mia had the populist appeal, but not much more – and Urinetown probably was not everybody’s cup of tea. Millie, on the other hand, allows for the Broadway musical touch – big ensemble numbers, eye-catching costumes, and lots of great dancing propelled by a comic-book plot that allows the audience to just sit back and enjoy – even white slavery can deliver the laughs if the context is right!
The current Broadway Rose production has everything it needs – great sets (really, very cleverly designed backdrops) that allow for speedy scene changes to keep the show moving, an amazing 12-piece orchestra under the always impressive direction of Alan D. Lytle, flawless and powerful vocal ensemble combined with Director Lyn Cramer’s delightful choreography and clever staging, and leads with the energy and joie de vivre to bring the audience to its feet at closing. Millie is not for everybody (if you don’t like musicals, you’ll hate it!) but Broadway Rose audiences are big fans of the genre, and it shows in their enthusiastic response.
The story is based on Richard Morris’ 1967 film starring Julie Andrews (and Mary Tyler Moore, and Carol Channing, and Beatrice Lillie – a can’t-miss cast). It’s 1922, and newly minted flapper Millie Dillmount arrives in NYC from the sticks to make her fortune the “modern” way, by marrying for money rather than love. She moves into a hotel for aspiring actresses run by the evil Mrs. Meers, a failed thespian turned con who impersonates a Chinese landlady while kidnapping young girls and selling them into white slavery. Millie falls for the poor but charming Jimmy, while her new friend Miss Dorothy ignites the passion of Millie’s rich boss. More kidnapping, a daring rescue, and predictable plot twists lead to everyone getting what they really need, as opposed to what they thought they wanted. Love, courage, and stenography conquer all. In other words, don’t go for the compelling story!
In a show with strong leads and no weak links, some of the most fun comes from unexpected places. After a staid first-act presence, Joe Thiessen (as Millie’s boss Trevor Graydon) knocks it into the nosebleed section with the powerful “Ah Sweet Mystery/Falling In Love” duet, and Katie Perry (“Miss Dorothy”) is impossibly cute while pouring her heart into her half of this number. Al Jolson might be turning in his grave, but Samson Syharath (“Bun Foo”), Heath Hyun Houghton (“Ching Ho”), and Emily Sahler (“Mrs. Meers”) are utterly captivating in the hybrid “Muquin” – a curious synthesis of Chinese and English that gives “Mammy” a whole new spin. Sahler’s absurdly cartoonish Chinese accent is hilarious once the audience gets over the unavoidable discomfort of dealing with an obvious racial stereotype. We wish the show gave Annie Kaiser (“Muzzie”) more opportunities to display her comic ability, but she nails “Only In New York” and the final, powerful note seems to go on forever. Joel Walker (“Jimmy Smith”) is slick yet likeable as he transforms himself from cynical playboy to sincere swain, and the scene on the window ledge with Millie is convincingly dizzying.
Finally, there is Claire Avakian (“Millie”). She is ridiculously charming throughout, and especially memorable in the upbeat “Forget About the Boy” and the poignant “Gimme Gimme.” “The Speed Test” establishes her as a formidable comic, too. The audience cannot help but respond to her curious mixture of spunk and sincerity, and it is Avakian who ultimately transforms this musical froth into a well-spent evening. Thoroughly Modern Millie is anything but modern, but as homage to a golden era of musicals it is thoroughly satisfying.
Broadway Rose’s Thoroughly Modern Millie runs through July 26th at Tigard High School’s Deb Fennell Auditorium.