“Thoroughly Modern Millie” at The Playhouse takes us back to the Jazz/Flapper and “Thoroughly Modern” era of early 1920s New York as small town girl Millie Dillmount arrives there, tears up her return ticket home, and embarks on her new planned life as a “Modern”.
The show itself is an adaptation of the 1967 film of the same name made to promote Julie Andrews in the lead role and cash in on her current “Star Status”. The film rights to the planned musical “The Boyfriend” were not available, so a not too well known British “Jazz Age” musical “Chrysanthemum” was adapted and Americanised. This odd result did work financially (if not entirely artistically), and some of the great songwriters of the day provided songs like “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and “the Tapioca”.
This musical adaptation though retains the title music, but the other music here is new, so don’t go to this one expecting to hear your favourite film songs. Having said that though, there are some great new songs here, by Jeanine Tesori (music) and Dick Scanlan (lyrics) and it is easy to see why this production has won 6 Tony awards including “Best Musical”. The music and lyrics in this show are written like they used to write a musical show. The songs are part of the narrative and fit perfectly into where they should in the story, and “How The Other Half Lives” and “Not For The Life of Me” are great show songs. We also at times move almost into Gilbert and Sullivan territory with scenes and songs like “The Speed Test”. There is also a nice little section based on some of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Suite”, but this Jazz Bar version probably owes more to the Duke Ellington & Billy Strayhorn version than the original.
“Millie” is simply a fun and energetic musical in the vintage musical mould of the great shows that have gone before, and Joanne Clifton is perfect as the singing and dancing title star Millie Dillmount, and the dancing does not get to outweigh some very good vocal and dramatic performances. That balance of a naïve country girl in the big city chasing something that in the end she knows is not her dream is played with the gentle comic touch that this role needs.
As a perfect counterbalance to Millie, we have Sam Barrett as instantly smitten love interest Jimmy Smith, and there are some solid show songs here for Sam and the performance just fits in so well with Joanne’s Millie. Also some good performances from Catherine Mort (Muzzy Van Hossmere), Laura Benson (Miss Flannery) and Laura Wilson (Alice). These last three performances were announced at the start as replacements.
The oddest of roles though goes to co-star Michelle Collins as the pretend oriental “dragon lady” Mrs Meers who is running this run down hotel for actresses and performers as a front to find girls who are essentially “orphans” to sell then to the Orient as part of a wider “White Slave Trade” organisation. It is not a great part, and some of the heavily faked accent for the role made many of the lines difficult to make out properly from where I was sitting. Although this role is a big part of the sub-plot of the original film, when you add Mrs Meers’ two oriental helpers Ching Ho (Damian Buhagiar) and Bun Foo (Andy Yau), who play two brothers, into the melting pot of the script and performance you get an element of racial stereotyping that was possibly mildly funny (at best) back in 1967 but is simply not even amusing in the 21st century. The “White Slave Trade” sub plot of the original film could so easily be removed, rewritten without any detriment to the main plot...in fact, it would have allowed more expansion of that “Jazz Age” music. Another issue tonight was that the choice to have our Chinese brothers do some scenes in Chinese while the audience read a translation on an onstage screen simply did not work because the text was too small and the colours used not strong enough against one another for clear visibility. The result, the audience pretty much lost whatever story line was in there.
This show does have other pluses though – good period themed sets and costumes plus some good lighting design.
Despite some flaws, this was a show that I liked a lot and if it would be brave enough to write out that sub-plot it could be a great song and dance show up there with “Chicago”.
Review by Tom King