Book by Richard Morris and Dick Scanlan. New music by Jeanine Tesori. New lyrics by Dick Scanlan. Directed by Shel Piercy. A Theatre Under the Stars production. At Malkin Bowl on Wednesday, July 15. Continues in rep until August 22
Thoroughly Modern Millie is thoroughly odd—both in its deliberate naiveté and in its treatment of race. In this Theatre Under the Stars production, Millie is also a very good time.
The story is about a young woman who moves to New York City from Kansas in 1923, bobs her hair, and sets out to become emancipated. Ironically, the centrepiece of her plan is to marry for money rather than love. She targets her boss, Trevor Graydon III, but—wouldn’t you know it—falls for an apparently impoverished paper-clip salesman named Jimmy Smith.
This paint-by-numbers plot is enlivened by inventive cheesiness. The elevator in the Hotel Priscilla, where Millie lives, only works if you tap-dance in it, for instance. With every cell of its being, this musical declares that exuberance is the American way.
In the subplot, things get weird. Mrs. Meers, the white owner of the Priscilla, dons Chinese dragon-lady drag and sells orphaned young women into prostitution in Hong Kong. Bizarrely, sexual slavery is treated as a joke.
Similarly, Millie’s treatment of race comes from an oblivious outsider’s perspective. To a large extent, it’s about white people mocking Chinese stereotypes. Watching Sarah Rodgers’s Mrs. Meers mangle her Ls and Rs and squawk like an Asian chicken gets downright uncomfortable. Although the show is unsophisticated in this regard, it’s not entirely dopey and mean-spirited. The story includes a sympathetic Chinese character named Ching Ho, and, in a playful device, subtitles appear everywhere—but especially on laundry—when characters speak Cantonese.
Two of the performances are stellar. You couldn’t ask for a better Millie than Diana Kaarina. This vivacious performer has great comic timing, and she’s a skilled dancer and a note-perfect belter. In an elegantly camp performance of conservatism, Seth Drabinsky makes Millie’s boss, Graydon, both movie-star suave and hopelessly nerdy. I also particularly enjoyed Nancy Herb’s smoky-voiced presence as chanteuse Muzzy Van Hossmere.
Danny Balkwill could afford to relax as Jimmy, and Rodgers makes too much of a meal out of the tainted chop-suey role of Mrs. Meers. Faster is usually funnier.
Millie is a dancing show—the music is mostly forgettable—and choreographer Shelley Stewart Hunt works Charleston-based wonders with a large cast. There are 24 in the adept chorus.
Be prepared to turn your brain off when necessary, and to enjoy the show’s relentless enthusiasm.