Bright, Bouncy and Lots of Fun: Modern Millie at Paper Mill
Although I enjoyed Millie on Broadway, I do not think that I sufficiently appreciated the brilliance and amazing skill with which Dick Scanlan and Jeanine Tesori transformed a mostly delightful, but, by 2002, problematic comedy-with=music screenplay into the very model of a full-fledged old-time musical comedy (John Morris, who wrote the original screenplay and is credited along with Scanlan as co-author of the book, had begun adapting it for the musical stage with Scanlan when he passed away in 1996).
For those who aren't familiar with Millie, a brief synopsis of act one:
New York. 1922. Millie Dillmount arrives in New York City determined to get a job as a stenographer and marry her boss. She checks into a hotel favored by young, struggling actresses. All are blissfully unaware that their landlady Mrs. Meers kidnaps those of their number who have no families and sells them to flesh peddlers for delivery to the "Orient" as "white slaves." Millie becomes friends with Miss Dorothy, a new arrival at the hotel who is as penniless as she is, but has a pampered air about her; and is pursued by Jimmy Smith, a hedonistic wastrel who gets by on his wits. Millie finds that steno job and thinks that she is making progress in wooing her boss Trevor Graydon until Graydon and Miss Dorothy fall in love at first sight. Jimmy gets Millie and Dorothy invited to a society party where the host is Muzzy Van Hossmere, a rich widow and jazz singer who befriends Millie, who by now has fallen in love with Jimmy and observes Jimmy kissing Dorothy as he leaves her room after an apparent late night tryst.
The pleasures of Thoroughly Modern Millie awaiting Paper Mill theatergoers include:
- Dick Scanlan's superb updating of the Richard Morris screenplay which retains a good deal of the humor of the film, adds humor of its own, and removes the offensiveness from a screenplay of an era when there was insensitivity to racial stereotyping (while retaining the characters and story more or less intact). It is smartly and wittily written. Take Jimmy's response to being called poor by Millie, "I'm broke, not poor ... Poor is permanent, broke can be fixed." When the young actresses learn about the kidnappings, one notes that they are "being shanghaied to Hong Kong." I'm afraid that last one may worry some, but there is no reason for offense here.
- a vastly expanded and varied song stack which includes s superior cache of nine new faux-1920s theatrical songs by Jeanine Tesori (music) and Dan Scanlan (lyrics) that are fully integrated into the book in ways that Ross Hunter and George Roy Hill (respectively producer and director of the film) never even dreamed about. In addition to James Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn's toe-tapping classic title song for the film, there are operetta classics, a '20s pop song, and Gilbert and Sullivan's "My Eyes Are Fully Open" which becomes "The Speed Test" for typists (think about how clever that is) with very funny new lyrics by Scanlan, who has provided witty new lyrics for other of the period songs. Tesori and Scanlan's "Forget About the Boy" and "Gimme, Gimme (That Thing Called Love)" and "I Turned the Corner" are as lively and melodic as remembered '20s classics.
- the magic of Burke Moses as Trevor Graydon. Moses has reinvented the role by replacing Graydon's robotic stiffness with a delightfully foolish smug superiority. His gorgeous, truly thrilling vocals on "Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life" and "Falling in Love" steal the show. And it is not petit larceny. (Paper Mill was the last progenitor of major productions of the great operettas in the New York metropolitan area. Several such Paper Mill productions were successfully remounted by Beverly Sills at the New York City Opera. How thrilling it would be to see Naughty Marietta return to the Paper Mill stage. If you don't feel the same way, I submit that you might well change your mind after hearing Burke sing these two songs from its score.)
- the unflagging energy of the multi-talented Laurie Veldheer, Paper Mill's Millie Dillmount. Whether leading the singing and dancing female ensemble in the "Forget About the Boy" or, in a quieter moment with Jeff Kready (Jimmy), singing their lovely duet "I Turned the Corner", Veldheer impresses. My only caveat is to note that Veldheer's performance would be less tiring and more winning if she could just relax a bit more and press a bit less.
- the delight of seeing perennial Broadway favorite Lenora Nemetz sampling any number of bad accents as the now faux Asian hotelier-white slave trading Mrs. Meers. Nemetz, and James Seol (Ching Ho) and Billy Bustamante (Bun Ho), are delightfully funny performing a Chinese "Mammy" ("Muqin")Al Jolson's signature songwith some new lyrics in English and Chinese, and English supertitles.
- Brenda Braxton's smooth, sinuous singing and her warm performance as Muzzy. Ashley Kate Adams' charming performance and beautiful voice. Jessica Sheridan's standard issue well executed standard issue performance as the dour office manager.
- Mark S. Hoebee's richly detailed, sure handed direction that is visible in the solidly entertaining performances and the smooth integration of Millie's diverse elements
- an evening chock full of the lively and entertaining choreography of Denis Jones featuring the first rate ensemble and many of Millie principals. The "Speakeasy" dance to a bit of classical music is particularly fresh and quirky.
- Michael Schweikardt's scenery, which includes two lit panels of false proscenia, is more eye appealing than the distracting, jumbled set for the Broadway production. Martin Pakledinaz's snazzy original costumes (with additional design and execution by Gail Baldoni) are colorfully eye appealing and evoke the fabled couture of the art deco era.
Thoroughly Modern Millie thoroughly succeeds as an old-fashioned musical comedy very well tailored for contemporary audiences.
Thoroughly Modern Millie continues performances (Evenings: Wednesday & Thursday 7:30 pm/ Friday & Saturday 8 pm/ Sunday 7 pm; Matinees: Thursday, Saturday & Sunday 1:30 pm) through May 5, 2013 at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 3 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ 07041. Box Office: 973-376-4343; online: www.papermill.org.
Thoroughly Modern Millie Book by Richard Morris and Dick Scanlan; New Music by Jeanine Tesori; New Lyrics by Dick Scanlan
(Thoroughly Modern Millie is a co-production with the Maltz Jupiter Theatre of Florida.)