Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Touring Thoroughly Modern Millie
Also see Bob's review of Hello, Dolly!
The split week, non-Equity national tour of Thoroughly Modern Millie has settled down for a week at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. Judging from the large audience in attendance at the opening performance, it will prove a lucrative booking for both Troika Entertainment and NJPAC. However, artistically, there is not much to be said for it.
A mild, entertaining Broadway musical version of the popular Julie Andrews film comedy with music, Millie requires sharp, distinctive performances to punch home its humor and put across the pleasantly tuneful new songs by Jeanine Tesori and Dick Scanlan which comprise the bulk of the score. The book by Richard Morris and Scanlan cleverly defuses the offensiveness of the racial stereotypes of the film while in some ways enhancing the humor derived from the stereotype. As most know, a not meant to be taken seriously farcical subplot involves young single women being sold into Asian "white slavery" by their rooming house landlady.
Millie and Ensemble
"The Speed Test"
The largely youthful cast plays the material full force with scant attention to characterization or subtleties. Whatever their individual virtues and limitations, director-choreographer Joey McKneely has permitted the cast to perform in bland, superficial fashion. There is no sense of any shaping directorial hand. The resultant effect is that there is an amateur feel to the entire performance.
As the 1922 thoroughly modern new girl in town (New York) determined to marry for money, neophyte Alex Ellis belts out every number and drives home every line without conveying any particular charm or verve. Her second act solo "Gimme, Gimme" is belted out full throttle from the first note, leaving her no room to build the effect. (Okay, I admit it, at least as far as the charm part is concerned, I felt similarly about the immensely talented Sutton Foster's Broadway Millie). Jason Fleck is totally bland as Millie's boss. The humorous woodenness which marked the character in the film, and was duplicated on Broadway by Marc Kudisch, has been replaced by bland vacuity. Additionally, when Fleck duets on "Oh, Sweet Mystery of Life" and "I'm Falling in Love with Someone" (one of several humorous musical interludes employing period songs), he cannot hit the high notes accurately. It is here that Courtney Elise Brown as Miss Dorothy displays a truly beautiful soprano. Adam Zelasko as Millie's suitor Jimmy sings and acts pleasantly. Elizabeth T. Murf merely hits her marks as the comic villain landlady, Mrs. Meers.
Rebecca E. Covington as Muzzy sure did perk my ears up with her smoothly sung, deliciously jazzy "Only in New York" that was the highlight of the evening. There are two really fine all around performances. Arthur Kwan is both funny and charming as the good hearted, conscience stricken Ching Ho, and Jennifer Harrison's steno pool supervisor is a fully realized comic creation with a touch of humanity.
This national tour has the colorful costumes designed by Martin Pakledinaz for the Broadway original. It appears to be a traveling light re-creation of the original Broadway production. However, there is no credit whatsoever for either original director Michael Mayer or choreographer Rob Ashford. McKneely's choreography (and I cannot identify specific differences from the original) is pleasant, but lacking in pizzazz and distinctiveness. The pared down scenery consisting mostly of dropped down flat pieces is held in place by visible wires (there isn't even an elevator in which Millie and Miss Dorothy can tap) are credited solely to James Fouchard, even though his sets are suggestive of the oppressive David Gallo originals.
There were considerable problems with the sound system at Tuesday's performance. It was very difficult to discern the dialogue and lyrics, and the voices as well as the small, considerably reduced orchestrations were made to sound shrill and unmusical. The sound level varied throughout the performance, and there was a strong echo at times. Driven to headphones for the second act, I found that they not only made the words considerably more audible and present, but, contrary to my prior experience elsewhere, they produced cleaner, and more lifelike sound.
During the past few seasons, NJPAC has presented a number of absolutely first class touring productions. Sadly, Millie is far from one of them.
Thoroughly Modern Millie continues performances through June 11,2006 at NJPAC Prudential Hall, One Center Street, Newark, NJ 07102. Box Office: 1-888-GO-NJPAC (466-5722); online www.njpac.org.
Thoroughly Modern Millie Book by Richard Morris & Dick Scanlan/
New Music by Jeanine Tesori/ New Lyrics by Dick Scanlan; Directed by Joey