Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July, 2007
One look at the press release for the current Mac-Haydn production of Thoroughly Modern Millie and I knew that this would be the Mac-Haydn at their best. While the theatre frequently gets in very talented young performers for a season or two, it is the core of slightly more mature folks who have spent many years performing in Chatham that keep the Mac-Haydn humming. When a cast features Karla Shook, John Saunders, Kathy Halenda, and Monica M. Wemitt, you know that you’re in for a good time.
Luckily the featured newcomers – Austin Riley Green, Kathleen Fehrle, Thom Caska, and Whitney Lee – are capable of keeping up with the big dogs. Combine all that on stage talent with a notable directorial debut by Tralen Doler and piles of beautiful costumes by Jimm Halliday and you have a real crowd-pleaser in the grand Mac-Haydn tradition of all-singing, all-dancing Broadway extravaganzas.
Thoroughly Modern Millie is one of those reverse musicals, part of the trend of taking popular movie musicals and bringing them to the stage, a trend the Mac-Haydn is following with its next two shows White Christmas and Singin’ In The Rain. The film in question was a 1967 movie starring Julie Andrews as Millie, Mary Tyler Moore as Miss Dorothy, Beatrice Lillie as Mrs. Meers, and Carol Channing as Muzzy Van Hosmere. Talk about an all-star cast! This stage version, with a libretto by Richard Morris and Dick Scanlon, new music by Jeanine Tesori, and new lyrics by Scanlon, made it to Broadway in 2002 and has become an instant favorite in regional theatres across the country because it is family-friendly fun with a vibrant score and lots of tap-dancing.
The year is 1922 and Millie Dillmount (Karla Shook) arrives in New York City from Salina, Kansas. She trades in her long hair and hick clothes for a smart bob and short skirts and sets out to conquer the Big Apple as a modern woman with a bold new scheme, she plans to marry a rich man, whether she loves him or not. (I doubt that this was a bold new scheme in 1922, I suspect that gold-digging has been around for considerably longer than that!) Alas, she is promptly mugged, and, being penniless, finds herself rooming with Miss Dorothy Brown (Kathleen Fehrle), at the Hotel Priscilla, an establishment for young aspiring actresses run by Mrs. Meers (Monica M. Wemitt). Young aspiring actresses are not really lucrative business, so Mrs. Meers kidnaps all the orphans and ships them off to a life of White Slavery (aka prostitution) in Hong Kong. She has the unwilling assistance of two young Chinese men, Bun Foo (Thom Caska) and Ching Ho (Whitney Lee) who are hoping that Meers will bring their mother to America in exchange for their services.
Millie gets a job at Sincere Trust working for the handsome and wealthy Trevor Graydon (John Saunders) at whom she sets her cap. In the meanwhile she makes friends with a slightly shady young man named Jimmy Smith (Austin Riley Green) and a famous night-club singer Muzzy Van Hosmere (Kathy Halenda). The plot somersaults through a few convoluted twists and turns, but in the end Millie attains her goal, and then some.
Shook plays Millie as a force of nature, one of the few tornadoes to escape from Kansas and head east. She is a kinder, gentler version of Anita Loos’ ultimate flapper Lorelei Lee, the role that made Carol Channing a star in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in 1949. Shook is in full belt mode here. She doesn’t need that darned body mike (at the performance I attended those $#^%@# things were creating huge honks and squeals of feedback at odd moments ARGHHH!) And there were times when he feet seemed to start tapping all on their own before she was consciously aware that she was dancing.
Green looks like a Jimmy, and his singing is fine, but his characterization lacks pizzazz. Why would a firecracker like Millie fall for a milquetoast like that? It seems a blessing that he turns out to be a millionaire because I’m not sure how long that marriage would have lasted otherwise.
Fehrle is a fine coloratura soprano, but her Miss Dorothy almost vanishes beside Shook’s powerful Millie, Halenda’s confident Muzzy, and Wemitt’s broadly comic Mrs. Meers. I get the feeling that in a few years Fehrle will be able to rule the stage too, but here she is definitely overpowered by the more experienced ladies. Still, she gets the sweet and pretty part down pat, and her turn with rapturous dance with Saunders was a hoot.
John Saunders as a blond?? I have to say that I liked it slightly better on him than I did on Shook in Oklahoma, but it still took some getting used to. But there was nothing not to like about his pompous, hilarious Trevor Graydon. His balletic twirls in Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life (yes, the one last heard on the Mac-Haydn stage in Victor Herbert’s Naughty Marietta) were a scream, but his drunk scene took the cake. Why doesn’t Muzzy get Trevor in the end? After all, she tells us that “Mister H” has been gone a long, long time.
When I first encountered this show last September, in an earlier production directed by Doler at the Cohoes Music Hall, I spent a lot of time fussing about the white slavery plot line which I had completely forgotten from my childhood viewing of the film. This time I was prepared for it and so it seemed less heinous, although I still think that a fine 21st century stage adaptation could have been made without it. But Wemitt’s hilarious, over-the-top performance as Mrs. Meers went a long way towards helping me enjoy that particular aspect of the show. She earns some of the biggest laughs of the night playing the washed up but still ambitious actress reduced to playing a cheesy Chinese bit part when she longs to be a star.
And what can you say about Kathy Halenda? She is absolutely believable as a star because she is a star. She knows how a star moves and talks and sings and dresses. Wait until you see the gorgeous gowns Halliday has designed for her here! She is every inch the diva and she gets two big numbers (surrounded by handsome dancing johnnies, of course) in which to wow us. The funniest scene in this production is when Halenda and Wemitt face off under ludicrous circumstances in the lobby of the Hotel Priscilla.
I enjoyed reading the recent press release the Mac-Haydn sent out focusing on Thom Caska, a Niverville native, in which he described learning his lines in English before learning them phonetically in Cantonese so that he would know what he was saying and give them the proper body language. The use of spoken and sung Cantonese Chinese by Bun Foo and Ching Ho in Thoroughly Modern Millie is one of the show’s cleverer devices, but alas, the physical setting of the Mac-Haydn makes it hard to see the projected super-titles with the English translation. Also they were being flashed by way too fast at the premiere performance I saw. Everyone needs to slow down and the actors need to help direct the audience’s attention to the screens as the first Cantonese scene starts so that they can catch on and follow the jokes. When I saw this show on the proscenium stage at the Cohoes Music Hall last fall the super-titles worked beautifully and the scenes with the two young Chinamen were some of the funniest in the show.
Caska passes pretty well as an Asian with his droopy Fu Manchu moustache. And Lee, an actual ethnic Asian, is a good sport about playing such a dreadfully stereotyped role. He looked like he was having the time of his life singing Muqin.
Doler has staged and choreographed a string of high energy musicals for C-R Productions at the Cohoes Music Hall over the past few years, earning that theatre an enviable reputation as the place for top-notch musical theatre in the Capital Region from September-May. It is no wonder the Mac-Haydn brought him on board, since they hold that crown in the summer months. I was interested to see how his work would translate into the unique physical confines of the Mac, and the answer is, pretty darned well. I still think I like his proscenium work better, but there was nothing wrong with the vibrant, fast-paced dance numbers here and the snappy pace with which the show moved along.
The combination of Doler’s energetic choreography, commanding performances by Shook, Wemitt, Halenda, and Saunders, and the flash and dazzle of Halliday’s costumes under Andrew Gmoser’s colorful lighting all in the close quarters of the Mac-Haydn make this Millie a real treat to see. From the opening number, done all in black, white and silver on Bob Hamel’s coordinating set, this production grabs you and takes you along on a thoroughly enjoyable comic roller-coaster (complete with strobe light chase scene) that you’ll be sorry to see come to an end.
Thoroughly Modern Millie runs through July 15 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on Route 203 just north of the center of Chatham, NY. The show runs two hours and thirty minutes and is suitable for the whole family. For tickets and information call the box office at 518-392-9292.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007