Thoroughly Modern Millie
Where: McPherson Playhouse
When: To May 11
Rating: four (out of five)
In the 1920s, flappers were gals who just wanted to have fun. They smoked, had jobs, cut their hair and boozed in speakeasys.
In other words, they did all the fun stuff men were doing.
In the 1960s, nostalgia for 1920s and the flapper look took hold. (Part of the appeal was that the flapper esthetic fit in with the burgeoning women’s liberation movement.) So it was no surprise in 1967 when Thoroughly Modern Millie, a musical film starring Julie Andrews about a feisty flapper, became a hit.
The Victoria Operatic Society has just opened the 2002 stage musical based on the movie. Starring Alex Dorward as the irrepressible Millie, this entertaining romp is among the company’s stronger efforts. It benefits in particular from Jessica Hickman’s surefooted direction and clever choreography, as well as Patricia Reilly’s excellent art deco/nouveau-inspired set.
The cartoonish plot has Kansas-bred Millie arriving in New York City to make it as an actor. She checks into a hotel popular with penny-pinching actresses, where she makes a pal, Miss Dorothy (nicely played by Noelle Antonsen).
Following proto-feminist advice offered by Vogue magazine, Millie sets out to marry a rich guy. With this in mind, she gets hired as a secretary at a firm run by businessman Trevor Graydon (a solid performance by Christopher Newstead). Complications ensue, however, when a seemingly penniless scoundrel, Jimmy Smith, sparks her romantic interest. Meanwhile, it transpires the woman running the hotel, Mrs. Meers, is part of a white slavery ring.
Thursday’s preview performance revealed a well-rehearsed, entertaining show. Big-voiced Francesca Bitonti, a VOS veteran, offered some of the evening’s best singing as heiress Muzzy Van Hossmere. This was apparent during her showcase song, Only in New York, delivered in a stunning blood-red gown and floor-length wrap.
Jeffrey Stephen, playing Jimmy Smith, is another VOS regular who showed, once again, that he can be relied upon for worthwhile acting and singing. Some of his songs are quite difficult — indeed, that goes for the entire cast.
Dorward captures Millie’s brassy spunk, although on this night some numbers were drowned out somewhat by the orchestra. As a last-minute fill-in for an ailing performer, Kelley O’Connor especially impressed as the comical Miss Flannery (the office manager), delivering a clever performance emphasizing the physical.
Mrs. Meers is an curiously non-PC role. The character is a failed actress who pretends to be Asian, which means plenty of stereotyping (“Arr arone in the rorld” etc.). Amanda Russell, one of the stronger cast members, tiptoes the tightrope deftly, striking a balance between being funny and non-offensive.
More than anything, theatregoers will be impressed with Thoroughly Modern Millie’s big production numbers, which are terrific. In particular, a cast-of-thousands typing scene — in which desk-seated secretaries are whisked around by male dancers — was performed with brio and skill.
Throughout, Hickman’s choreography bristles with panache and wit. Her routines are more complex than those typical of community theatre, yet the hard-working cast carries them off in style.
A lovely stage-surround around the proscenium, decorated with bold period motifs, adds much to the atmosphere. Moveable set pieces representing upper-storey office windows and 1920s elevators are attractive and functional.
The VOS cast and crew have obviously worked hard on Thoroughly Modern Millie. This kind of effort always shows on stage — and it certainly does here. It’s a fine show with strong dancing, good singing and superior production values.