The Gallery Players’ staging of this Tony Award winner is just a bonbon. But who says musicals have to be good for you?
BY ELLEN WERNECKE
When Thoroughly Modern Millie, a musical based on a British hit and envisioned as a Julie Andrews vehicle, hit movie screens in 1967, its conceit of a jazz baby trying to go straight just long enough for her to meet and land a rich man was already part of the past. Its 2002 Broadway resetting (involving new music and lyrics as well as an edited book), even further from the Jazz Age, needed heroine Millie Dilmount’s drive for laughs even more. It’s not that the notion of gold-diggers is that far from our national consciousness—we still have TV’s The Bachelor, after all—but Millie’s conviction (that to be “modern” is to make her marriage read like a balance sheet) is just as much of a joke as any show-tune anthem declaring that the character will never fall in love. (There are at least two of those songs here, “What Do I Need With Love” for the poor schemer who falls for Millie, and “Jimmy," her anthem for him.)
When Brooklyn’s Gallery Players try to go serious with Thoroughly Modern Millie, pausing to emphasize one character’s moral lesson or another’s hasty mistake, the show slows down without gaining any gravitas. But overall, it’s as light on its feet as its jitterbugging cast. Director Neal J. Freeman shows off their stuff to perfect effect by letting the production flow from scene to scene, a move that also highlights how much the company does without a Great White Way-sized budget. The song-and-dance number “The Speed Test” is a showcase for the tapping talents of the chorus as well as the “Modern Major-General”-style comedic timing of Andy Planck, who plays Millie’s boss. Allison Luff, as Millie, has clearly studied Sutton Foster’s Broadway performance of the role, but it doesn’t break her stride as the stubborn “modern” from Kansas; her friend Dorothy (Amy Grass) is just this side of shrill, but Millie quickly surrounds herself with more captivating characters like the international superstar, Muzzy van Hossmere (a deliciously grandiose Debra Thais Evans).
Unfortunately, Millie is burdened with a white-slavery subplot that, besides employing an ethnic caricature in a not very funny way, is also the one element that keeps the show from being family-friendly. (To begin with, no one uses the term “white slavery” any more, so good luck explaining that to little Dick and Jane.) Justine Campbell-Elliott (as the predatory Mrs. Meers) dons an Asian accent as a means of disarming the girls under her care at the Hotel Priscilla, but it’s too reminiscent of Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and even thoroughly, shall we say, un-modern. As a director, Freeman should have turned down the caricaturizing in order to allow the audience to focus on her henchmen, Ching Ho and Bun Foo (Roy Flores and Jay Paranada), who are funny enough even before the manually operated subtitles come out. Luckily, this sour chord doesn’t distract too much from the fun of following Millie and her jazz-crazy friends.
Through Feb. 22 at 199 14th Street in Brooklyn. For tickets and more information, visit galleryplayers.com.
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