Thoroughly Modern Millie
25 August 2015
Some musicals work because of the stars who play the leads. Some musicals work because of the fabulous music. Some musicals work because of the opportunity for sizzling dance numbers. Some musicals work because they tell a fabulous story, with music. Some musicals work because they break new ground, play with form and genre, re-imagine what it is to be a musical. Some musicals work because they are adapted from much loved books or films or plays.
Thoroughly Modern Millie is not a musical which fits into those categories and it is debatable that it really works as a stage musical. It is blessed with a remarkable title tune, which can be a toe-tapping inspiration, a source of wit and panache, and also double or even triple up as a reflective melody, a juxtaposed thought or, in slow time, as a love song. Based on a bizarre B-grade movie which, because of its stars, has attained cult status, and despite being the vehicle which propelled Sutton Foster to stardom on Broadway and gave Amanda Holden an Olivier nomination in the West End, the piece is an odd, camp melodrama cum farce. It is enlivened by music which, except for a few numbers other from the title song, one of which was borrowed from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore and another from Victor Herbert’s Naughty Marietta, are completely forgettable.
To work properly, Thoroughly Modern Millie must be stylish, outrageous, full of energy and panache, impeccably sung, and peppered with bright, effervescent choreography so that the whole piece has a cohesion, a ludicrous, but totally engaging, vision which, essentially, recreates the thrill of silent movies (but with dialogue which is funny if delivered the right way, but dreary if delivered naturalistically). It is one of those rare occasions when More is Essential and when Less is Wrong.
Now playing at the Landor Theatre is SDWC Productions’ revival of Thoroughly Modern Millie, directed by Matthew Iliffe, with musical direction from Chris Guard and choreography from Sam Spencer Lane and Freddie Huddleston. It is an energetic and enthusiastic romp, and while there are one or two spot-on performances, on the whole Iliffe has adopted an altogether too safe approach to the piece, which does not permit it, or the cast, to shine as they might.
The dancing is really the one area here where there is a consistent, utterly stylish, utterly camp, utterly “too much” approach. The cast are all accomplished dancers and the routines ping with power and pleasure. Lane and Huddleston have done a superb job at ensuring uniformity of step and action; the group numbers are precise, with everyone exactly in time, all performing in riotous synchronicity. Both Thoroughly Modern Millie and Forget About The Boy are delicious and there is some seriously good tapping from George Hinson and Thomas Inge and the entire female cast.
Andrew Riley transforms the Landor space into a vibrant 1920’s pit of possibility by careful use of beautifully designed screens, a nifty makeshift elevator and a large dancing arena which an transform into an office or a hotel reception area with the flick of a heavily fringed flapper frock. It looks garish and glamorous, precisely right for the period and Sam Waddington lights proceedings with a sure eye and real skill, so that shadows dance and hover in an appropriately romantic/spooky way depending upon the scene.
Francesca Lara Gordon makes her professional debut as Millie and proves to be one to watch. She has great legs and can dance with zest. Blessed with a sweet voice, in the right role Gordon would be a knockout. But as directed here, she does not sparkle in quite the way she needs to sparkle. Millie needs to light up the room when she enters it and to exude charisma and charm – when she turns out to have impressive stenographic skills, there should be twinkle in her eye which relishes the surprise she has created.
Gordon makes a good fist of the role, but her voice is not quite brassy enough, the top of her belt not quite strong enough, the attack in her delivery not quite energetic enough to permit the show to soar. Mostly, the issue is that Gordon is trying to play Millie in a naturalistic style; but that is not what the role requires and needs.
She is not helped by the men in Millie’s life, both of whom have a certain style but neither of whom are really right for their roles. Ben Stacey is handsome in that boy next door way made so familiar by endless American television shows, but he does not posses the confidence his character needs, nor his vulnerability. He too has a sweet voice, but it is not strong enough at the top. He can dance though, and he gives the part vigour and enthusiasm. He is at his best in the final scenes, and together with Gordon, produces a cute final scene.
Millie’s prospective husband, her boss Trevor Graydon III, is less successfully played by Samuel Harris, who has the right look, but not the right sound, and certainly not the right sense of sensual assuredness. Graydon is the ultimate ladies man, rich, entitled and looking; Harris did not convince in these respects. His voice is excellent in the middle, but diffuse and often out of tune at the top. It really is a basic requirement of the part that he can sing Sweet Mystery of Life with ease and The Speed Test with alacrity and dexterity. Alas, Harris was not up to either task.
The best performances come in supporting roles. Christina Meehan is a superbly gorgon like Miss Flannery, but the kind of gorgon with a heart of marshmallow once she likes you. Her wig was a gargoyle’s delight and exactly right. She put the “rough” into Thoroughly Modern Millie in exactly the right way. At the other end of the spectrum, but with equal aplomb and unerring precision in character, Sarah Marie Maxwell shone as Miss Dorothy. Perky, wide-eyed, beautiful and with an easy, relaxed voice (although Sweet Mystery of Life was touch and go) she brings a zany freshness to the ingenue with a secret.
There are two great roles for older actresses with delicious comic skill in this show and here, unaccountably, both were played by young ladies: Steph Parry, as the evil but idiotic Mrs Meers and Chipo Kureya as Muzzy. Neither was nearly old enough to have a chance at making the character parts work as they should and need to. Both were great dancers and singers, and both shone in ensemble numbers where they could revel in their own age. Would that their obvious talents were better used.
Anthony Starr and Alex Codd were on the right side of silliness in their portrayals of Bun Foo and Ching Ho respectively. Codd is especially effective, finding precisely the right line of comic incongruity and romantic impulse. Both danced exceptionally well and carried off silly business with aplomb.
Musically, especially when the entire company is singing, there are no complaints. Guard keeps control of the musical reins from the keyboards and the company has been well drilled; the harmonies are spot on, and their is excellent diction even when many are dancing and singing at once. The composition of the small band was unconvincing and it may have worked better with just keyboards and drums. That said, and apart from the odd discordant note, the band gave good support to the company.
This is a difficult musical to pull off at the best of times; it is even harder when the casting (Anne Vosser) is not ideal. But there is a lot of commitment and enthusiasm from the young cast, some quite splendid dancing, and a range of excellent supporting performances.
It is difficult not to tap away with Millie and her pals – and to look forward to what this company and these performers will do next.