Wednesday, November 05, 2003

Thoroughly Modern Millie (Playhouse Square Center)

‘THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE’ less than expected

At the 2002 Tony Award ceremony when ‘THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE’ was announced as the winner of the Best Musical there was an audible gasp in the audience. It was expected that ‘URINETOWN’ was going to receive that coveted award. Clevelanders who subscribe to the Playhouse Square Broadway series will be allowed to make the evaluation themselves.

Having seen both shows, I know that I would have definitely chosen the creative, tune-worthy, staging-worthy ‘URINETOWN.’ I find MILLIE to be a pedestrian musical with a weak book, a weaker score, and repetitious music. That is not to say audiences will not like it. They will, as was demonstrated by the partial standing ovation the show received at its opening performance in the local run. Of course, standing ovations in Cleveland are not symbols of great shows or performances as they’ve become as common as clapping.

Based on the 1967 movie of the same name, the hokey story-line of Millie centers on the arrival in New York of a Kansas “hick” named (no surprise here) Millie. In contrast to the lead character in ‘42ND STREET,’ the musical most like MILLIE, this cutie is out to get a husband, a rich husband. Millie accidentally runs into Jimmy, a handsome young man, while she is chasing a thug who has stolen her purse and a shoe. (Yes, one shoe. Now do you understand the hokeyness of this story?) He is some “poor” guy who doesn’t fall into her description of a future husband (well, not yet). Through a series of incidents which include a kidnapping ring who capture orphan Caucasian young ladies and ship them to the Orient (I told you this was hokey), a young debutante from “California” (the quote marks because, of course, that is not true and unravels as the story proceeds), a pair of Chinese who are working as part of the kidnapping ring because they have been promised if they cooperate their mother will be brought to the US (can you believe that one?), a famous African American female singer who married for money, and...well, you get the point. This goes on and on and on and doesn’t get any better.

Songs from the show include “The Nuttycracker Suite,” “Only in New York,” “Forget About the Boy,”and the four-time reprised “Not for the Life of Me.” Never heard of any of them? That about summarizes the score. Oh, yes, there is the title tune, “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” and though it is included, it wasn’t even written for this show, as were three other numbers that are included.

The cleverest parts of the show are when there are actually take-offs of other musicals and songs. A Chinese version of Al Jolsen’s “Mammy” and a Nelson Eddy, Jeanette MacDonald-like duet of “I’m Falling in Love with Someone” are delightful. Of course, they have nothing to do with the story line, but who cares. Another “neat-o” shtick is a screen over of the actors’ heads, which displays the English translations of spoken and sung Chinese. It’s like the Cleveland Opera telling us what the words to ‘CARMEN’ mean.

The touring production doesn’t use the State Theatre stage well. They usually perform in smaller venues, so the scenery and movements scrunch in the action. The postage stamp design doesn’t work well.

Even the dancing fails to make an impact. Though enthusiastically carried out by the cast, the movements become boring due to repetition. How many flapper hand and foot movements can one appreciate?

The cast is adequate. Darcie Roberts as Millie has a wonderful voice, but not the infectious personality and cuteness that is needed to captivate an audience. Matt Cavenaugh is handsome enough to portray Jimmy, and his voice has good range, but a false attitude takes the edge off the character. Diana Kaarina as Dorothy is Bernadette Peters cute and has a similar voice. Hollis Resnik’s Mrs. Meers, the head of the kidnapping ring, becomes more and more irritating as the show progresses. On the other hand, Pamela Isaac, as the rich chanteusse, has a wonderful voice and belts “Only in New York” with pizzazz.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE’ is a pleasant-enough escapist piece of fluff. If you liked ‘42ND STREET’ you’ll like this. If not, wait for ‘URINETOWN.’ It’s a creative winner.