KPBS AIRDATE: NOVEMBER 3, 2000
It may not seem Thoroughly Modern, but a good deal of it is thoroughly irresistible. The world premiere musical, “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” feels like a revival. In fact, it feels — and looks — very much like another old chestnut revitalized at the La Jolla Playhouse: “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” That megaproduction made it big on Broadway, and this one may, too. There will always be a market for mindless musicals, especially when they’re inventively directed, magnificently costumed and energetically choreographed. From the nostalgic, feel-good, upbeat, tuneful standpoint alone, this production is worth a look-see.
The 1967 movie was a witless, convoluted affair, carried by the star-power of Julie Andrews, Carol Channing and Mary Tyler Moore and. Beneath all the flap and flappers, it’s a love story, and a coming of age fantasy, set in the Roaring Twenties. Young Millie Dillmount, a country girl from Kansas, strikes out for The Big Apple, intending to refashion herself into a “modern” woman. Except, along with a hair bob, a raised hemline and an office job, that also includes the decidedly unmodern ambition of marrying a wealthy boss. While she’s busy gold-digging, Millie tries to ignore the fact that she’s falling in love with plaid-clad, nerdy niceguy, Jimmy, who happens to be poor and unemployed. Ultimately, all the tables turn, even more so in this twisted take on the original musical spoof.
In the conversion from screen to stage, the major challenge was how to deal with the racially stereotyped Chinese henchmen of the evil white slaver. Writer Dick Scanlan and director Michael Mayer have hit the jackpot here, giving the brothers singing roles and a larger stake in the action. The changes are hilarious. Musically, the wildest applause goes to the crafty retooling of a Gilbert and Sullivan patter-song from “Ruddigore” and the ebullient Act Two opener, “Forget About the Boy.” The score is an intriguing mix of old standards, songs from the film and clever new additions by Scanlan and composer Jeanine Tesori. The combination mostly works, except for an excess of sappy love songs, which drag down the second act. The orchestrations, however, are terrific, as are the voices and the brassy 10-piece orchestra.
As Millie, Sutton Foster is a genuine find… and her own last-minute move from understudy-to-star parallels the play. With her million-dollar smile, her endless legs and her triple-threat talent, she smacks of Bebe Neuwirth with a wide-eyed innocence. All her cohorts are delectable, though the highest profile performers, Pat Carroll and Tonya Pinkins, are underutilized and underwhelming. The infamously elaborate set, which caused the production’s one-week delay, is a busy, angular affair, whose multiple moving parts don’t always deliver sufficient bang for the techno buck. But deep analysis isn’t warranted here. This one’s just for fun. As one friend put it, it’s like a big, goopy, chocolate fudge sundae: supersweet, with no nutritional value, and you couldn’t make a steady diet of it, but you lap it up and love it just the same.
©2001 Patté Productions Inc.