Thoroughly Modern Millie

Marquis Theater - May 2002

Review by John Kenrick

(Please note: This review was written and posted weeks before Millie won six Tonys, including Best Musical. While I clearly flunk out as a fortune teller, I stand by the opinions expressed in this review. )

Close – oh so close, but no cigar . . . and I daresay no Tonys, either.

Creating a musical comedy takes an amazing amount of creativity, especially at a time when the form is so out of tune with popular culture. With the dazzling revival of 42nd Street still running a few blocks away, any so-so attempt pales by comparison with the real thing. Thoroughly Modern Millie is not a bad show. In fact, its talented creators have tried their damnedest and there are moments where they almost pull it off. The story of a small town girl arriving in 1920's New York, where she learns about love, battles a white slavery ring and becomes "thoroughly modern" has plenty of laughs and showcases some fine talent. But talent is not enough. Two shortcomings ultimately defeat this well intentioned show – a lack of creative imagination and several painfully miscast leads. And without those, you cannot have a first-class musical comedy.

The producers have clearly poured millions of dollars into the sets and costumes – including that most expensive of theatrical accessories, a massive turntable stage. But not one of those sets or costumes is even vaguely memorable. The same is true of the new songs in the score. When the biggest musical moments are the film's title tune and Victor Herbert's 1910 hit "I'm Falling in Love With Someone," something is vitally wrong. I forgot Jeanine Tessori's melodies the second after I heard them, and although lyricist Dick Scanlan has fashioned a cute Gilbert & Sullivan parody (pity he didn't have the grace to give Gilbert credit in the program), his other rhymes have no hint of wit.

It was probably a bad idea to entrust a big, new musical to Michael Mayer, a fine dramatic director whose only previous musical credits were two Broadway flops. Could anyone else have done a better job? I doubt it. He manages to create some hilarious moments, but as is always the case with new musicals, the director must bear the prime burden for Millie's failure. And any director who would accept such second-rate work in almost every creative department has no business handling a multi-million dollar Broadway production.

And how could any director have agreed to such weak casting in the lead roles? Fans have always overlooked the film version's obvious shortcomings because Julie Andrews sparkles as Millie. I'm not saying the part requires an established star, but it desperately needs a leading lady with genuine star quality. Sutton Foster has looks, a socko belt voice, and takes one of the best pratfalls I have seen in years. But true star quality looks completely effortless – with Miss Foster, it is always clear just how hard she is working to look like a star. She would probably be delightful in a regional or summer stock production, and may one day develop into more. But at this point, she has no business starring in a Broadway show.

(By the way, the director has blatantly staged the curtain calls to almost force the audience into a standing ovation for this girl -- what a tacky, cynical gesture.)

Gavin Creel is even worse off as Millie's carefree boyfriend Jimmy. Creel doesn't just lack star quality – he is a total zero on stage, with less charisma than a wet feather boa. And if someone thought they were doing Sheryl Lee Ralph a favor by casting her as the aging flapper Muzzy, they were sadly mistaken. This onetime Dreamgirl still looks stunning and can certainly hit some audible notes, but whoever told her she could act was lying. I'll give her this – she has memorized Carol Channing's dialogue with almost total accuracy. Although Angela Christian is far better as Miss Dorothy, the script never gives her much to work with – I hope to see her in better roles in the future.

Happily for audiences, several deft supporting cast members provide enough over-the-top moments to almost save Thoroughly Modern Millie. The gorgeous Marc Kudisch is brilliantly funny as Millie's super-square boss Trevor Graydon, capturing just the right comic book tone and turning both of his big numbers into show stoppers. If you want to know what star quality is, just watch this man in action. His growing legion of fans will be delighted with his efforts here.

Speaking of stars, Harriet Harris, who has become one of the finest character actresses in theater and television today, is a shameless riot as Mrs. Meers, the hotel owner who kidnaps orphaned guests and sends them off to a life of prostitution in China. As her henchmen, Ken Leung and Francis Jue give a human dimension to two the most politically incorrect characters to hit Broadway in the last fifty years. When they join Harris in a bilingual rendition of a classic period number (which I will not name here, lest it spoil anyone's fun), the result is easily the biggest laugh I've heard on Broadway this season. And Anne L. Nathan is so engaging as the spinsterish office manager that her role should have been expanded – she is a comic gem.

Special note: Rob Ashford's imaginative choreography is miles above the other physical aspects of this production. When he sends an army of typists and office boys tapping around the stage in "The Speed Test," you get some sense of what this show might have aspired to with comparable creativity in other departments.

Last season's Producers, 42nd Street and Full Monty proved that there is still a tremendous audience for musical comedy. While Thoroughly Modern Millie is not altogether bad, at almost $100 a seat, it is nowhere near good enough.

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