Thoroughly Modern Millie is a Great Song and Dance, But Not So Modern (4 Stars)
by Johnny Monsarrat
Thoroughly Modern Millie at the Reagle Music Theatre, July 14-17, www.reaglemusictheatre.com.
In the 1920s, Millie, a young woman, moves to the big city in search of a wealthy boss she can work for... and marry. But what about love?
The complete immersion of the production sweeps you into a nostalgia for an age, the 1920s, so long ago that nobody in the audience lived through it. But we pine for it anyhow. While the story is solid, inventive choreography by Susan Chebookjian carries the production. During one scene, the clickety clack of an office of young women typists is symbolized by their tap dancing from their seats. You'll find plenty of big song and dance numbers, and the choreography even carries over into the scenes when the music is done. It's as though every part of the production is a dance, in a sense. Characters sweep into position when they walk about the stage, and lock eyes in a way that reminds me of the Tango.
Being carried back to the 1920s was made easier by the extensive range of costumes by Martin Pakledinaz and scenery by Richard Schrieber based on the original design by James Fouchard. This was not a single staging, "but we'll change the lighting to indicate different locations" kind of show. It seemed like every location had unique staging, with the highlight being the window ledge scene. You could sense the fear of the multi-story drop below, even though that was of course just a staging illusion.
The show as a whole was funny, with some scenes laugh out loud funny, such as the stenography scene which is an homage to the song in Gilbert and Sullivan's Ruddigore, the rapid fire song "it really doesn't matter matter matter matter matter...". Millie (Gabrielle Carrubba) had great chemistry with a possible mate, Mr. Graydon (Mark Linehan). Something about the timing of their back-and-forth indicated a true bond. Kudos to Linehan for physical comedy, stumbling and rocking, and an adorable empathy that make his character's passions both believable but also comically enhanced. (He literally swoons in one scene.)
Millie's chemistry with Jimmy (Andrew Tighe) was less convincing, unfortunately. They have witty repartee of the kind you see in Film Noir, but I couldn't get a "read" on how Jimmy, wanting to seem nonchalant, may actually be falling for Millie. They say that acting is really all about reacting, so perhaps as the show continues this improved. I'm sorry to say that I also couldn't get a read on Mrs. Meers (Maryann Zschau). Is she the villain we love to hate? Or a dopey, slapstick villain we know in a comedy will do no harm? Or a tragic figure we're supposed to ultimately empathize with? Some comic but evil prancing and cackling might have helped move her to the "evil" category, and helped me to get over an issue that I'll address later.
Kudos to Mollie Keane-Dreyer (Miss Flannery) whose pitch perfect mannerisms, hands on hips or wagging finger, made her a tough taskmaster, skeptical about love, but also just "one of the girls" in a later scene, without dissonance. She does so much with such a small part, creating twice the humor that is written in the script with her withering looks and tough but fair rebukes.
I was also quite taken with the comic antics of the dinner scene towards the end of the movie. It's a complex scene with multiple characters speaking all at once and interacting with each other... and yet due to the choreography and the ability of the actors to ham up their own lines but fall into the background when it was someone else's turn to speak... it never became confusing but was instead delightfully moronic.
I didn't find myself humming any of the tunes the next day, but several of the songs made my body thrill or hum in concert with the live orchestra and singing. It was a show to embrace. The ending of any romantic comedy is of course predictable, but there is a delightful twist at the end for the supporting cast. And another for Millie that I'm not sure really supports the idea that love overcomes all, but whatever.
The venue is comfortable and large, with easy parking and access, part of a high school campus, but the cast is all adult, regional theatre. This is not a "high school production".
At this point in the review, I'm supposed to be angry about the racist Chinese accent done by a white actress. And I am. That kind of thing is way past appropriate. It's true that the character in the script is actually a white woman in disguise, but they could have played it in different ways without the old and tired "L" is "R" gag being played over and over with a wink to the audience, "Isn't it stupid how Asian-Americans talk?" For example, she could have had a thick Boston accent and the other characters could have done a double take when she claimed to be Chinese. Or the character could have delighted in the Asian parody but in an evil manner that other characters balked at and the audience clearly wouldn't be expected to go along with.
Anyway, this problem is ameliorated by having two Asian actors in the cast playing Chinese henchmen, which makes racial humor sort of okay? And there is some sophisticated humor around the use of real Chinese spoken with projected subtitles. I don't know if this production invented that, or if they borrowed it from a previous production, but it is brilliant. The cast speaks in actual Chinese and then the translation you read is hilarious. So this is hardly a thoughtless, throwaway lampooning of Asians. And everyone in the story is dopey, including the Asian characters. While I was trying to figure out how to react to this, I had an epiphany.
During the intermission, I happened to sit behind two women who were sharing photos on their smart phones of men on an online dating site. They had never met these men, but had traded emails or texts with some of them. And they were saying horribly cruel things, making fun of what they had said or their appearance. I expect that kind of trolling on the Internet, but to see and hear it so close in real life rattled me. I suggested to them that making nasty remarks about strangers, taking such joy in feeling superior... was really an awful way to treat other human beings, and nothing to rejoice in, but they told me to shut up.
That made me think about the play. Millie is a dope, an innocent, and here comes love. The entire production is a dopey comedy... It's innocent, good fun, devoid of intentionally wanting to hurt anyone. So I decided to only remove one half a star for its datedness, and its brush, though not unintelligently, with off-color racial humor. That makes Thoroughly Modern Millie a must-see 4.5 stars that I am glad to give an actual 4 stars to.
For more, see www.reaglemusictheatre.com. And be sure to catch their next show, Crazy for You, the Gershwin spectacular starring Broadway couple Kirby and Beverly Ward, coming August 4-14.