May 31, 2016
WHAT “Thoroughly Modern Millie”
WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, through July 10, John W. Engeman Theater at Northport, 250 Main St.
TICKETS $69-$74; 631-261-2900, engemantheater.com
What makes Millie so thoroughly modern? She thinks marrying for money, not love, makes her a brash New Woman. But dependence on a man is hardly feminist. Still, in the Engeman Theater’s sparkly “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” 2002 Tony winner for best musical, we can forgive the title character, since it’s 1922 and women won the right to vote just two years earlier. Plus, she’s played with irresistible flapper/tapper exuberance by Tessa Gray (Roaring ’20s costumes by Kurt Alger).
Millie arrives by bus from Kansas to New York, all shiny with the metallic gleam of Jonathan Collins’ Art Deco design. The first thing she does is tear up her return ticket. Go back to Kansas? “Not for the Life of Me,” she sings with the defiant optimism of an ingénue. But where will she live in this high-rent town?
The Hotel Priscilla for Women takes in young ladies of minimal means, though there’s a catch. If the proprietor, cartoonishly sinister Mrs. Meers, finds that the girl has no family, she packs her off to a Hong Kong “white slavery” ring. Michelle Ragusa as Meers, flaunts her faux Chinese accent with the spite of an actress scorned, imposing revenge on girls who might succeed where she failed. Her accomplices, played by Anthony Chan and Carl Hsu, work in a Chinese laundry. If the stereotypes weren’t bad enough, the show’s creators — Richard Morris wrote the 1967 film screenplay, Broadway lyrics by Dick Scanlan and music by Jeanine Tesori — go too far with Al Jolson’s “Mammy” in Chinese. I’m not without a sense of humor, but I find this shtick offensive.
But back to Millie. As directed by Drew Humphrey, accompanied by James Olmstead’s period-sound orchestra, she brightens every room, including the offices at Sincere Trust, where she lands a stenography job (“Speed Test,” ably assisted by Daria DeGaetano). She intends to marry her boss, the millionaire voice of authority (Tim Rogan). But he’s smitten by Millie’s friend Dorothy, played by Sarah Stevens like the Kansas refugee in “Oz.” Meanwhile, Millie is off and on with ardent suitor Jimmy, who literally goes out on a ledge to see her in “I Turned a Corner.” Nicole Powell as a nightclub chanteuse dispenses love advice with soaring conviction in “Long as I’m Here with You.”
Despite her marry-for-money notions, Millie’s OK. The Asian subplot, not so much.