June 4, 2016
As you watch “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” it is difficult to remember that the old-fashioned musical set in 1922 dates only to a 2002 Broadway debut. Its staging at the John W. Engeman Theater at Northport reinforces that sense of nostalgia, as it blithely features a time when the “modern” goal of a smart gal was to marry for money instead of love, and when “white slavery” was something to joke about.
The audiences that poured into the hit show during its more than two-year Broadway run, during which it picked up six Tony Awards, including best musical, apparently weren’t bothered by those themes. And, indeed, that effervescent production, which made Sutton Foster a star, erased, or at least plowed through, most misgivings with precision tap-dancing and quirky performances that emphasized sending up, rather than accepting, the mores of the 1920s. I remember liking the show.
These days, the kidnapping (or trafficking) of women, as well as men and children, is a more serious topic. Marrying for money, of course, still goes on, but it’s not considered cutting edge. Creating a “Millie” that overcomes shifting attitudes must still be possible, but the Engeman production, under Drew Humphrey’s direction, never gets as fabulously funny as it needs to, though it is largely enjoyable.
The choreography, by Mr. Humphrey and Dena DiGiacinto, often becomes tedious, relying on repetitive stylized moves while the dancers, in one or two rows, face the audience. The set, designed by Jonathan Collins, features repeated Art Deco designs, as do the glittery costumes by Kurt Alger. Everything is too coordinated.
Fortunately, the singing, acting and dancing are all solid. Tessa Grady is charming as Millie Dillmount, who arrives in New York from Salina, Kan., determined to stay no matter what, even after she is mugged and left with no purse, hat or scarf and only one shoe. Jimmy Smith, a dapper young man she trips so he will stop to help her, advises her to return to Kansas. When she refuses, he steers her toward a hotel for actresses. “They’re used to girls who can’t pay,” Jimmy, nicely played by Daniel Plimpton, tells her.
It turns out that the hotel’s proprietor, Mrs. Meers, makes her money by kidnapping some of the aspiring actresses and selling them into slavery in Hong Kong. Mrs. Meers (Michele Ragusa) wears a kimono and speaks in a stereotypical accent that occasionally sounds more Southern American than Southeast Asian. Her posturing, though strange, is supposed to be part of the comedy, because as the script makes clear, she is American-born and not of Chinese heritage at all.
Ms. Ragusa is funny, though not as hilarious as intended. Her best moments come in interactions with two Chinese brothers — engagingly played by Anthony Chan and Carl Hsu — who handle laundry for the hotel and participate in the kidnapping scheme. Watch for their hilarious second-act “Muqin,” in which the brothers sing “My Mammy” in Chinese while supertitles do the translating.
The brothers stop cooperating after one of them suddenly falls in love with the latest victim, Miss Dorothy Brown (a lovely, strong-voiced Sarah Stevens), a friend of Millie’s. Another man who falls instantly for Dorothy is Trevor Graydon (Tim Rogan), Millie’s wealthy boss and the man she hopes to marry. Mr. Rogan masters “The Speed Test,” a quick-paced patter song with music borrowed from Arthur Sullivan and some lyrics from W. S. Gilbert, though most of the words, about stenography, are by Dick Scanlan.
Though the musical uses other borrowed material, most songs are original. Mr. Scanlan wrote all of the new lyrics and wrote the show’s book with Richard Morris, who wrote the screenplay for the 1967 movie, starring Julie Andrews, upon which the musical is loosely based. Among the borrowed songs is “I’m Falling in Love with Someone,” a duet ably sung by Mr. Morris and Ms. Stevens, which Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald sang in the 1935 film “Naughty Marietta.” The number succeeds as a spoof.
The music for the original songs — including the lively “Gimme, Gimme” — was written by Jeanine Tesori, who usually composes for more thoughtful shows, like “Fun Home,” currently on Broadway. James Olmstead, the music director, leads his band tunefully.
The musical ends with a revelation made by Muzzy Van Hossmere, a rich widow and nightclub singer. Earlier, Nicole Powell, a smoky-voiced chanteuse who plays Muzzy with a refreshingly calm dignity, delivers an elegant “Only in New York,” one of the best Tesori-Scanlan songs. It’s a highlight in a production that is often pleasant and entertaining.