Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
In the Ohio/Kentucky/Indiana tristate area centering around Cincinnati, a lot of the attention for collegiate musical theater programs focuses on the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and Wright State University, and rightfully so. However, for a number of years now, there have been some talented performers and fine work produced at Northern Kentucky University (NKU). Their latest offering, Thoroughly Modern Millie, is a prime example.
Thoroughly Modern Millie started out as a 1967 film starring Julie Andrews, Mary Tyler Moore, and Carol Channing. Like the movie, the musical follows a naïve girl from Kansas as she arrives in New York City in 1922. Millie sets out to find a job working for a rich boss and then marry him, without the "outdated" requirement of love. Her plans are diverted, however, by her new friends Miss Dorothy and Muzzy, romantic longings for a loafer named Jimmy, and the sinister doings of the mysterious Mrs. Meers, who runs the boarding house where Millie lives.
The show's book is credited to the late Richard Morris, who wrote the screenplay for the film, and Dick Scanlan. There has been some tweaking of the story, primarily the ending and in fleshing out characters. The adaptation is generally a smart one, with all of the characters introduced sufficiently and possessing clear motivations. The plot isn't overly complex or deep, but there's plenty of humor, conflict, fun, and charm to go around.
Although the score is a patchwork of existing tunes plus nine new songs written specifically for the stage adaptation, you'd never know it. The old material includes the title song and "Jimmy" from the film, as well as "The Speed Test," which features original lyrics written to a classic Gilbert & Sullivan patter song from The Mikado, a revamped instrumental version of Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker Suite," and several others. Composer Jeanine Tesori has established herself as one of Broadway's top writers with her music for Violet, Caroline, or Change, Shrek, and Fun Home. Her new material for Thoroughly Modern Millie varies a bit in quality, but "Gimme Gimme" and "Forget About the Boy" are top-notch melodies bursting with energy and emotion. A few of the numbers for other characters, especially Muzzy, are less accomplished, but are solid contributions for the piece. The lyrics by Dick Scanlan display adequate wit and wordplay, and are always at least serviceable. Still, despite the various sources, there's a strangely pleasing cohesiveness to the overall score thanks to Tesori's arrangements.
This musical offers one huge role, as well as a number of meaty supporting opportunities for the NKU cast. In the title role, Megan Urz is up to the challenge, providing the character with spunk and fierce determination, but also with warmth. In addition, she puts her powerful voice to excellent use in many numbers. As her love interest Jimmy, Evan Moore supplies wonderful singing and is charismatic. However, the line delivery in his acting dialogue is somewhat rushed at times, and his overall diction could be improved.
Melissa Cathcart displays great comic timing as the show's villain Mrs. Meers, garnering lots of laughs. She's also a skilled singer and possesses praiseworthy stage presence. Sophia Dewald embodies the formal innocence of Miss Dorothy, and shows off strong legit vocals in the role. Christina Tully brings warmth and conveys the world-wise perspective of an older woman well with the somewhat underwritten character of Muzzy. Turning in the production's top performance is Andy Burns as Millie's boss, Trevor Graydon. He is perfectly delightful as the uptight businessman, and his colorful performance reaps a constant stream of laughs. Mr. Burns is also an excellent singer. There are a few rough spots in portions of the show featuring the ensemble, but they are overall talented and do a fine job with the material, especially with the dancing.
Director Jamey Strawn supplies a solid and fluid production which varies somewhat from the Broadway and tour productions, but works great on its own merit. There are a few small areas where additional clarity could be brought to the pieceincluding the jail scene and by providing wigs or other things for the ensemble to offer variation between the various rolesbut these are minor quibbles overall. The real star of the creative staff is choreographer Tracey Bonner. Her numerous dances, including a large amount of tap, are visually pleasing, historically accurate, and highlights of the show. Damon Stevens capably leads a fine orchestra.
NKU's Thoroughly Modern Millie sports a handsome art-deco scenic design by Matthew Hamel and attractive, period-appropriate costumes by Ronnie Chamberlain. The lighting by Terry Powell is apt and varied, but there were issues with the sound execution as designed by Kevin Havlin at the performance attended.
Thoroughly Modern Millie doesn't aim to challenge social views or ignite intellectual debate or insights, but rather to provide enjoyment and entertainment, and to focus on the need for real love in our lives. NKU's production succeeds in those goals thanks in large part to the talented cast and wonderful dances.
The show continues through December 11, 2016, at NKU Corbett Theatre in Highland Heights, KY. For tickets and more information, visit www.theatre.nku.edu or call 859-572-5464.