Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, September 2006
I was ten when the film Thoroughly Modern Millie was released and I remember enjoying it very much. Like every other little girl in the world at that time I had been lugged to see The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins over and over again by well-meaning elderly relatives who thought they were giving me a treat, and while I enjoyed those films (the first time at least) what really get me going was Julie Andrews. She was pretty and funny and could act and sing. And she seemed like a really nice person, which I understand that she actually is. I wanted to be her when I grew up. I also wanted to be a paleontologist. I was only ten.
But Thoroughly Modern Millie had more to offer than just Julie Andrews in a cloche hat. It had Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Channing and Beatrice Lillie. Moore, who would become such a big part of my life a few years later on The Mary Tyler Moore Show meant little to me then. Channing had just triumphed on Broadway as Dolly Levy, but it was explained to me that the reason it was so nifty that she was in this film was that she had played Anita Loos’ Lorelei Lee, the ultimate flapper, in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. And yes, I knew who Beatrice Lillie was when I was ten. My British father was a big fan of hers and always referred to her as Lady Peel. I still have a memorable recording of her singing the Mock Turtle’s Song.
So I went to the Cohoes Music Hall knowing two things:
1) I would not see Julie Andrews, Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Channing, or the late Lady Peel.
2) I would see a fun show about a small-town girl’s adventures in the big city
And I did. Jessica Costa, who has literally worked her way up from the chorus at Cohoes over the past few years, did a great job in the title role. I knew from her dynamite performance as Lois Lane/Bianca in Kiss Me, Kate last spring that she could carry a big production number, but could she carry a whole show? Yes, and she can do it delightfully well. Arrive prepared to be charmed and impressed by Costa’s tireless dancing and powerful singing.
I should explain that Cohoes is an acoustic theatre (no miking – YAY!!) that actually fields a small pit orchestra for its musicals, instead of the synthesizer and drums that many theatres substitute for budgetary reasons these days. The orchestra sits just below the stage, on the same level as the orchestra seats, not below them, so there is not actually a “pit” involved. In order to be heard a singer at Cohoes needs to be able to sing over the orchestra. Costa has no trouble with this requirement. She can belt it out over the orchestra AND the chorus with lung power to spare.
I had forgotten that the so-called plot of the film involved girls being kidnapped into White Slavery in southeast Asia along with some offensive Asian stereotypes. If someone had come to me back at the turn of the 21st century and said “Let’s make a stage musical out of Thoroughly Modern Millie.” I would have replied, “Great idea! But first let’s lose the White Slavery plot.” Apparently that idea never crossed the minds of librettists Richard Morris and Dick Scanlan. This is too bad because Thoroughly Modern Millie would be a practically perfect musical if only this minor adjustment had been made.
As it is it is a very good musical with a painfully embarrassing and racist sub-plot. And unfortunately, in the Cohoes production that sub-plot is headed by a woefully miscast Carol Charniga as Mrs. Meers, the frustrated over-the-hill actress posing as the kindly Chinese lady who runs the Hotel Priscilla where Millie Dillmount (Costa), Miss Dorothy Brown (Jeannie Shubitz), and an assortment of other young ladies just starting out in the big city reside. Whenever Mrs. Meers discovers she is housing an orphan, she invites them in for some gleen tea (did I mention she switches her Rs and Ls in truly stereotypical Asian fashion?), chloroforms them, stuffs them in a laundry basket and ships them off to Hong Kong, with the assistance of her two Oriental henchmen, Ching Ho (Anthony Ong) and Bun Foo (Eymard Cabling). These two actors are ethnically Asian, unlike Charniga, and their characters speak Chinese. I can’t say if they do it well. Super-titles are projected to enable us to understand all the hilarious, funny jokes they are making, most of which were already pretty tired by 1922, although it is fun to hear “My Mammy” belted out in Cantonese (or is it Mandarin?)
And speaking of My Mammy there’s a lot of borrowed music in this score, which I enjoyed by I was not pleased that the composers and lyricists (when the original lyrics are used) don’t get credit. I hearby announce that My Mammy has music by Walter Donaldson and lyrics by Sam Lewis & Joe Young. Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life and I’m Falling in Love with Someone are from Naughty Marietta and have music by Victor Herbert and lyrics by Rida Johnson Young. The Nutty Cracker Suite makes woozy work of the music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and the music for The Speed Test is the patter song from Ruddigore by Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan. Oh, and the new songs for the show are by Jeanine Tesori with lyrics by Dick Scanlan. Phew! I feel better now…
Okay, so Millie Dillmount comes to New York from Salina, Kansas, in 1922 with the “modern” notion that she will get a job as a secretary and marry her rich boss and live happily ever after. I doubt that that idea actually was considered “modern” in 1922, two years after women had finally won the hard-fought battle for the vote, but anyway, that’s what Millie wants. After bobbing her hair and shortening her skirts she is promptly mugged and reluctantly rescued by Jimmy Smith (Caleb Damschroder), an apparent n’er-do-well ex-paperclip salesman. Jimmy gives her directions to the Hotel Priscilla, run by the afore-mentioned Mrs. Meers, where she meets Miss Dorothy and the other girls. Millie gets a job as stenographer to the handsome tenor Trevor Graydon (Jason Fleck) under the watchful eye of Miss Flannery (Carrie Cimma.) Millie and Dorothy have various adventures, including becoming chums with famous heiress Muzzy Van Hossmere (Tessa White), fall in love, and become the object of various men’s affections, until Dorothy mysteriously vanishes into Mrs. Meers laundry basket and our heroes and heroines concoct a daring and silly plot to rescue her. Which works, of course.
Like Costa, Shubitz is delightful and perfectly cast as Miss Dorothy. She is also perfectly mated with Fleck, who is her significant other off-stage, which explains their charming on-stage chemistry and why Dorothy’s ultimate choice of suitor seems so wrong, wrong, wrong! Dorothy and Trevor have a Jeannette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy musical courtship which Shubitz coloratura soprano and Fleck’s rousing Irish tenor suit to a tee. In addition, they are both just plain funny, Fleck hilariously so. I was not surprised to read that he has played this role before in the national tour.
Tralen Doler is very, very good at directing and choreographing this kind of big, brassy, high-energy musical comedy. Each and every dance number in Millie is dynamite, and Costa and the chorus boys and girls do a fabulous job with them. C-R Productions has found a golden partner for their all-singing, all-dancing line-up in Doler, who pulled director/choreographer duty for past Cohoes smashes like Anything Goes and La Cage Aux Folles.
But Doler seems less lucky in his casting here. Costa, Shubitz, and Fleck are phenomenal, Cimma is a hoot, Ong and Cabling are charming, and the chorus members are all lively and attractive. But Damschroder is dreary, and Charniga and White literally suck all the air out of the theatre. I hate to say it, but when White was singing her (theoretically) big show-stopping numbers, I literally forgot that she was on the stage. White is NO Carol Channing. I somewhere read a list of the big names who had played Muzzy on Broadway, and I pondered whether the role required a talent as enormous as Channings, and came to the conclusion that it didn’t. But whatever magic it does require, White is completely lacking.
The other slightly off-kilter aspect of this show, and I cannot tell whether it is intrinsic to the show or unique to this production, is the see-sawing between very bold comic book style fantasy and the more mundane “reality” that passes as musical comedy. There are moments, and Fleck figures large in many of them, when this show seems to leap out from the comic book page – characters striking classic poses in a brightly colored pop art world – and other times, and Damschroder meanders through many of these, when it seems more like a sweet little romance. Hmmm…
Whitney Locher’s costumes are eye-catching, but can’t decide exactly which period they are portraying. I adored the black and white skirt-and-sweater uniforms the secretarial pool wore, but questioned the historical authenticity of many of Millie’s outfits. Yes, I know musical comedy does not have to be historically accurate down to the last detail, but the 1920’s had such distinctive and frankly fun women’s clothes that I was looking forward to seeing them recreated with more of an eye towards authenticity.
Jason Bolen has done a good job making the small Cohoes stage handle large-cast dance numbers and still portray several settings in diverse ways, and Justin Partier has done well with the lights, which play nicely off of Bolen’s set painting and shift through many moods. But whoever was running the super-title projector at the September 17th matinee which I attended should have been shot! The danged thing kept flashing big blobs of blue light at the top of the proscenium arch and random numbers on the back of the set until I thought I would scream. I would rather have stagehands with cue cards to interpret the Chinese for me than put up with that! I hope the problem has been corrected.
I think my final word on this production has to be uneven. There is a great deal that is fabulous and wonderful and highly entertaining, as Cohoes can be at its very best, and thankfully this is the majority of the production. But a few parts are just utterly dismal and embarrassing, which is frustrating considering what they could and should have been.
Thoroughly Modern Millie, presented by C-R Productions, runs weekends through October 8 at the Cohoes Music Hall, 58 Remsen Street in Cohoes. The show runs two hours and forty-five minutes with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. Call the box office at 518-237-5858 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006