Thoroughly Modern Millie (Imagine Productions – Columbus, OH)

Thoroughly Modern Millie has an interesting lineage; the musical play is based on the 1967 musical film starring Julie Andrews, Mary Tyler Moore, and Carol Channing. Only two songs from the film have been retained (the maddeningly hummable title song and Jimmy) while the rest of the score is original with music by Jeanine Tesori (she just won a long overdue Tony for Fun Home) and lyrics by Dick Scanlon, who also wrote the book along with film scribe Richard Morris. Premiering on Broadway in 2002, Thoroughly Modern Millie would run for over two years, win six Tony Awards (including Best Musical), and go on to perhaps greater success as a popular property licensed for performance by high schools and community theatres across the country.

Thoroughly Modern Millie is set in 1922 in Manhattan where country girl Millie Dillmount has arrived to find a husband, with her sights set on marrying a rich boss – as soon as she can find one. Along the way she meets naive orphan Miss Dorothy Brown, poor big kid Jimmy Smith, society matron Muzzy Van Hossmere, handsome but distant businessman Trevor Graydon, and evil whiter slaver Mrs. Meers. Will Millie learn to marry for love or money? Well, the answer is obvious, but the fun is in seeing how she comes to the conclusion.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Meredith Zahn as Millie
Meredith Zahn makes for a snappy Millie Dillmount, lively without appearing to suffer from a thyroid condition like Sutton Foster did on Broadway (yes, I know she won the Tony for it, but I think that her overzealousness was a bit tough to take in person). Meredith’s voice is pure and strong, and she blends in nicely when necessary with the other tenants of the Hotel Priscilla, all wearing their smart fashions with ease. Costume coordinator Jackie Farbeann really outdid herself in recreating the period without being too on the nose.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Kathy Taylor as Mrs. Meers

Kathy Taylor is a delicious Mrs. Meers, so abhorrently conniving that you almost want her to succeed with her current business plan to see just what she might come up with next. Her cohorts Ching Ho (Dante DiNucci) and Bun Foo (Sharon Kibe) understandably cower under her domination, and their dialogue appears in English in projections that appear to the right and left above the stage and are for the most part well timed. The portrayal of Mrs. Meers and her staff has been a problem going back to the film as they speak in broken English and appear to be Asian stereotypes. Mrs. Meers admits to being a frustrated former actress who lapses into her lisp whenever her boarders are present (she’s playing a part to them, albeit badly), but effort has been made to make her Asian helpers sympathetic. Whether this is all offensive is tough to say – it didn’t bother me or the audience, but none of us were Asian as far as I could see.

Hannah Berry is a standout as Muzzy Van Hossmere with an incredibly strong voice, beautiful teeth, and a calming demeanor. Chad Anderson as Trevor Graydon has the matinee idol looks down, even if he sometimes gets a bit tongue-tied. Ann Johnson as Miss Dorothy Brown is sweet without being saccharine, and one can see why Millie would forgive her for most anything. Jared Joseph does double duty performing as Jimmy Smith with plenty of charm while also being musical director for the show; I’m sure he has more than a little something to do with how great the orchestra sounds.

The main set piece is a rotating platform that has interchangeable panels to transform from the lobby of the Hotel Priscilla to Trevor Graydon’s office to the estate of wealthy Muzzy Van Hossmere. The settings are suggested by designs and signs in place of elaborate sets, and it is the perfect way to use this space. There are even doors on the platform that swing off to the side to represent the rooms within the hotel! Scenic designers Alex McDougal-Webber and Riley Hutchinson deserve some special prize for pulling this one off.

As I mentioned previously, the orchestra sounds really terrific with nary a stray note to be heard, well conducted by Abby Zeszotek above and to the left of the stage. The placement of the orchestra obviously requires some amplification, and this is one of the few areas for improvement – it’s just too loud. When the singers and the orchestra are going full force, the volume level is too high to keep everything intelligible. Less is more, especially in such a small venue. 

Still, director and choreographer Rose Babington has breathed fresh life into this production, packing so much onto a comparatively small stage. Even the flaws in the book (is it just me or does everything get resolved rather quickly and easily at the end?) are easy to overlook when there is such energy and life to glide past them. I can honestly say I’ve never enjoyed the play so much, either on Broadway or on tour, and I urge everyone looking to enjoy a lively, funny musical to book a stool at Wall Street to catch this one before it’s gone.

***/ out of ****

Thoroughly Modern Millie continues through to August 2 at Wall Street in Columbus, OH, and more information can be found at http://www.imaginecolumbus.org/thoroughly-modern-millie.html

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