Thoroughly Modern Millie

Review by Adam Blair

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 there.

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.

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