Thoroughly Modern Millie doesn’t know whether it wants to be an MGM musical or make fun of the MGM musical, but it doesn’t really matter, ’cause it’s no good at either. I don’t know if I want to make fun or, in an act of holiday generosity, just return this week’s paycheck and ignore it. It’s that bad, and I was that bored.
And that’s saying something, because Millie does everything short of a striptease in its Energizer Bunny–like effort to entertain. A furiously tapping, busily belting Technicolor stage translation of the 1967 movie—and who, I’d like to know, was agitating for one?—the show comes at you brandishing enough forced charm and enervating perkiness to power a Kathie Lee Gifford Christmas special. Would that it were that focused.
But no, Millie’s creative team—writers Richard Morris and Dick Scanlan, composer Jeanine Tesori, and director Michael Mayer—apparently hasn’t met a gag it’s unwilling to flog to death, so the show’s infantile joke of a plot has been embroidered with gimmick after questionably amusing gimmick, swipe after cheerily camp swipe at (and from) cultural artifacts we’re embarrassed to love. There’s a troop of tap-dancing typists led by a cranky office manager with cartoon-witch hair, a trial-by-stenography set to a Gilbert & Sullivan patter song, a boozy speakeasy frolic danced with a kind of Fosse-does-flapper angularity to bastardized Nutcracker music. A brisk, broad-shouldered businessman meets a frilly rich girl and launches instantly into a vein-poppingly heroic chorus of “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life.” Two Chinese bellboys and their dragon-lady boss take a break from a criminal enterprise to sing a Mandarin “Mammy” complete with handy supertitle translations. All this tinsel, tacked onto a stock-stupid story about a small-town girl determined to remake herself in the big city—it’s exhausting.
Oh, right, the stupid stock story: Millie Dillmount (Darcie Roberts) turns up in Roaring ’20s New York wearing a flowered disaster of a dress and planning an assault on the bachelors of Manhattan; dismissing the old-fashioned notion that love and marriage go together, our heroine intends to pick a prosperous fella and engineer a “modern” match that’ll keep her in the sassy fashions all the chic city girls are wearing. But a random encounter with a feckless, footloose ladies’ man (Brian McElroy) threatens to derail her scheme, and her new home, a theater-district fleabag crawling with similarly aspirational young ladies, turns out to be HQ for the white-slavery racket all the tabloids are shouting about. The evil mastermind: hotel proprietress Mrs. Meers (Pamela Hamill), a criminally bad actress masquerading as a Chinese dowager, the better to put knockout drops in the green tea she serves her unsuspecting guests. She’s the sort of villain who actually rubs her hands together in glee, and Millie is the sort of show that thinks “My condorrences to your famirree” is a laugh line.
Mayer’s direction appears to have involved mostly exhortations of the bigger-faster-brighter variety, and the ensemble responds by underlining everything it can underline and telegraphing pretty much everything else. Rob Ashford’s choreography isn’t quite clever enough to survive the amphetamine-frenzy attack on it; David Gallo’s sets seem insultingly flimsy for a show with a $93 top ticket. At least Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes look terrific, though no one bothers to explain how Millie and her fellow paupers can afford the glad rags he gives ’em for their nights on the town.
Performances range from the excruciating (Hamill’s broadly mugging villainess) to the eminently professional (Roberts’ spunky Millie, McElroy’s charismatic Jimmy Smith, Stephanie Pope’s glam chanteuse), but it can’t be said that anyone’s created anything like a real character—not the performers, and certainly not the writers. But then there’s precious little real or honest about Thoroughly Modern Millie; it’s a thoroughly misbegotten thing, an exercise in cynicism that assembles all the familiar elements of musical comedy only to demonstrate its contempt for nearly every one of them.CP