Book by Richard Morris and Dick Scanlan
New Music by Jeanine Tesori; new lyrics by Dick Scanlan
Original story and screenplay by Richard Morris for
the Universal Pictures Film
Directed by Michael Mayer; Choreographed by Rob Ashford
With Sutton Foster, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Harriet Harris,
Marc Kudisch, Gavin Creel, Angela Christian, Ken Leung, Francis
Jue and Anne L. Nathan
At the Marquis Theatre, New York City
There is absolutely nothing wrong with mindlessly entertaining
fluff as one part of a well-balanced cultural diet. In the
musical comedy idiom especially, the ability to create a care-free
zone for audiences is especially prized, and rightly so. Part
of the freedom we hold so dear is the freedom to turn off
the sense-o-meter and surrender to the giddy excitement brought
on by dozens of toe-tapping chorines, an especially well-executed
spoof or a particularly over-the-top bit of hamminess.
But - and you knew there would be a but - there's good fluff
and there's not-so-good fluff. Or rather, there's fluff that
takes you into its happy little world by virtue of its own
high spirits, wit and professionalism (like the current Broadway
revival of 42nd Street). Then there's fluff that has
many of the right building blocks but never constructs much
more than a charming scene here and a showstopping number
While even failed fluff offers intermittent pleasure, overall
it can be more disappointing than more meaty shows that don't
make the grade. When all a show means to do is entertain you,
and it only does so in fits and starts, it can feel like the
worst kind of tease. Nor can you say, as you might watching
badly done Shakespeare or Sondheim, "Well, at least they
were trying for something big."
Thoroughly Modern Millie, despite a strong cast, some
exciting choreography and attractive costumes, falls into
the not-so-good fluff category. The story not only couldn't
be simpler, it will already be familiar to those who have
seen the 1967 movie with Julie Andrews and Mary Tyler Moore.
Millie Dillmount (newcomer and Tony-winner Sutton Foster in
the Julie Andrews role) arrives in Jazz Age New York City
with a radical plan for getting ahead: marry her boss. First
she has to get a job, of course, but this being a musical
comedy, obstacles like that don't stand a chance against the
toothy optimism of the heroine.
Additional complications to Millie's simple plan include
an apparently penniless but charming suitor (Gavin Creel),
as well as the inability of the boss (delightfully starchy
Marc Kudisch) to regard Millie as anything more than a particularly
efficient stenog(rapher). Add into the mix Miss Dorothy, a
slumming rich girl eager to live life among the poor but plucky
(Angela Christian in the Mary Tyler Moore role), as well as
a slinky chanteuse, the fabulously rich and famous Muzzy Van
Hossmere (Sheryl Lee Ralph).
It's not that any of these performers are bad: they are all
professionals and each has some fine moments. Nor is it only
that their characters are so paper-thin they can be described
in a sentence or two - in the Kingdom of Fluff, any resemblance
to three-dimensionality can be a fatal weakness. But the plot
that has these attractive stick figures intersect is so basic
and simple that I was looking for something more - some bit
of performing extravagance or directorial legerdemain that
would levitate the story and keep it at the higher level that
musical comedy can offer.
It does happen occasionally, especially in the second act.
In "Forget About the Boy," the typing pool sets
its feet a-tapping as Millie's mercenary side struggles with
her budding romantic feelings for Creel's Jimmy. This is followed
by "I'm Falling in Love with Someone," when Kudisch
and Christian do the love-at-first-sight bit to every known
romantic dance cliché, a quick survey of climaxes from
the entire Astaire and Rogers oeuvre.
There's also a nice romantic duet for Creel and Foster, "Long
as I'm Here with You," and the requisite belting showstopper:
Foster delivers the goods in "Gimme Gimme," standing
downstage center and finally declaring her love, as a good
romantic heroine must eventually do.
The most inspired bit of casting, and the only performer
who consistently ignites her scenes, is Harriet Harris as
Mrs. Meers, the manager of the hotel where Millie, Miss Dorothy
and a gaggle of aspiring actresses live. Mrs. Meers also has
a profitable sideline: kidnapping those unfortunate girls
who have no families to miss them when they disappear, and
selling them to a white slave ring (legendary comedienne Beatrice
Lillie played the part in the film).
Harris has done some fantastic work in television (she was
Frasier's tough-as-nails agent Bebe Glazer, and played an
ungrieving widow happy her abusive husband had died on "Six
Feet Under.") She also did fine work in the Nathan Lane
revival of The Man Who Came to Dinner and did a nice
turn as Stephen Tobolowsky's wife in the movie Memento.
In Millie, Harris gets the chance to display all her
comedic skills, from a faux-Chinese accent that she slips
out of with split-second timing to reveal the tough broad
she really is. Her frustration when berating her less-than-brilliant
henchmen (Ken Leung and Francis Jue), her snide way with a
put-down and her delirious joy in hatching a plot are all
appropriately outsized and extremely funny. In the musical
she's a failed actress, but Harris (who took home a well-deserved
Tony for the part) hits the bullseye with her performance.
It's too bad that Harris and the aforementioned high spots
are contained in a show that doesn't always do them justice.
The movie's score (including the title song) has been augmented
with quotes from sources as diverse as Sir Arthur Sullivan,
Victor Herbert and Tchaikovsky, and while these are fun (especially
the Sullivan), their presence contributes to the disjointed
feel of the show. Michael Mayer's direction is efficient but
fails to create a real ensemble feeling or to build a consistent
momentum. Martin Pakledinaz's colorful, eye-catching costumes
capture some of the 1920s feeling that's sorely lacking in
the show overall. David Gallo's settings try for a sleek Art
Deco look, but some scenes look as if they're being played
against a particularly large, industrial-strength garage door.
Millie did win the 2002 Tony Award for Best Musical.
While I haven't yet seen its main rival, Urinetown
(which won best score and best book), I think Tony voters
simply couldn't bring themselves to vote for a musical that
referred so specifically to a bodily function. Millie
is far from terrible, so if you've already seen 42nd Street
and need a fresh fluff infusion, see it while Harris is still
in the show.