Friday, February 24, 2012

Theatrical Review: Thoroughly Modern Millie

Music by Jeanine Tesori, lyrics by Dick Scanlan, and a book by Richard Henry Morris.
Directed and Choreographed by: Brandon Hanks
Theatrical Review by: Paul Adam Smeltz

The Shawnee Playhouse in Shawnee on the Delaware, PA presented The Worthington Players production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” by Jeanine Tesori, Dick Scanlan, and Richard Henry Morris as their first musical production. The origins of the play derives from the film of the same name which was released in 1967. It starred Julie Andrews, James Fox, Mary Tyler Moore, and Carol Channing along with an appearance made by Noriyuki “Pat” Morita as Bun Foo (Credited as Oriental No. 2) who later became best known for his roles as Matsuo "Arnold" Takahashi on the “Happy Days” television show and Mr. Miyagi in “The Karate Kid” (Wax on. Wax off.) films.  

The 1967 film version of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” received seven award nominations from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) winning in the category of Best Original Score by Elmer Bernstein. It was also received a Golden Globe nominated for Best Motion Picture and Carol Channing was awarded Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture by the organization. In addition to this, the film received an award for being the Best American Musical of 1967 by the Writers Guild of America.

The film took place in 1922 and was made 45 years after that date. 35 years later (in 2002), the stage version of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” was presented on in New York City in the theatre district known as Broadway for which the production won six Antoinette Perry (aka Tony) Awards including one for best musical. It’s success soon lead to a tour throughout the United States and presented in London in the theatrical district known as the West End. In 2005, the play toured throughout the remainder of the United Kingdom. The production received very warm reviews.

Like the film, the theatrical musical version of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” takes place in 1922 during what has become historically known as “The Roaring 20s.” It was a time when the conventional mores established during the 19th century were being challenged by a younger generation whose readings of Sigmund Freud, Gertrude Stein, and others fueled the rebellious fires of their imagination. This was largely demonstrated in the fashion of the day which departed from the modest Victorian exposure of the female form to apparel which brazenly exposed a woman’s shoulder and ankle.

The morality shift was also demonstrated by the introduction of a new musical form known as “Jazz” which was seen by the societal guardians of the day to contain some very overt sexual connotations which was compounded by the fear of a far greater deviation from the acceptable social norm in which members of different races were able to intermingle socially. It is said, in an effort to counteract the moral depravity and the “Racial Imbalance” of Jazz, automobile manufacturer and proponent of ethnical and racial purity, Henry Ford encouraged the re introduction of square dancing as an alternative to Jazz Clubs. Although the play doesn’t overtly explore these aspects of the period and this reviewer‘s making mention of them may be a self indulgence on his part, the play does reflect the era and the social changes that were taking place during it.

“Thoroughly Modern Millie” is about a young woman named Millie Dumont (as portrayed by Liza Grando) who arrives in New York City with dreams of becoming a successful independent woman. After being mugged, she meets a young man named Jimmy Smith (as portrayed by Esteban Vazquez) who not only seems unsympathetic to her plight but encourages her to go home. A deep distaste of one another ensues and one can easily sense a romance in the brewing.

Millie takes a room at the Hotel Priscilla for Single Women and meets another young woman named “Dorothy Brown” (as portrayed by Kaitie Kaiser and also served the production as its assistant Choreographer) who is also a new arrival to the city with the desire to see how poorer people live as she is wealthy. They soon become friends and room mates as Millie goes into the world seeking a job in order secure not only an income but a rich and single employer to marry. She secures a job at a company called Sincere Trust and is assigned to work under Trevor Graydon III (as portrayed by Brian Foley).

She celebrates her success by going to a Speakeasy for wild night of illegal booze and jazz where she unexpectedly meets Jimmy Smith who helps her and her friends to get inside. However, the establishment is raided by the police and everyone is thrown into jail. After their release, Jimmy invites Millie to a party given at a Penthouse Apartment by a famous singer named, “Muzzie van Hossmere” (as portrayed by Wendy Williams) and she accepts. During the course of the party, they find themselves on alone on a terrace arguing until they kiss and fall in love.

This leads to a conflict within Millie herself as she endeavors to maintain her course to marry a wealthy man and therefore securing her financial and social future or to forego that practical and sensible plan in order to follow her heart and do what is right for her. The internal conflict Millie finds herself struggling with reflected the cultural and social changes prevalent among women and men during the late 1960 when the film was made. A redefinition of roles were taking place challenging the notion women needed men to be fulfilled socially, economically, or even sexually. So, the question the film asked its 1967 audience was, “Does a woman need to secure her place in the world by marrying someone whom she sees as an avenue to that goal or should she marry whom she loves and fearlessly safe guard her freedom as a woman regardless of the man in her life?”

Although this question remains a pertinent one to a thoroughly modern audience of 2012, the themes found within the play can be expanded to ask even more profound questions. “What messages of the soul are we willing to ignore in order to obtain something we feel we ought to possess?” “What aspect of our true nature which defines our values and all we find meaningful in our lives are we willing to suppress in order to be seen as acceptable in society?” These questions underscore the delight one experiences in the song and dance presented throughout the production while they subtly touch the unconscious until we begin to ponder them in our private moments after the final note is sung. This self examination allows “Thoroughly Modern Mille” to transcend its nostalgic qualities to become relevant through its timeless and universal themes. This is musical theater at its best.

The Worthington Players production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” successfully captures the joyful nostalgia of the period while keeping it’s themes and the questions they ask in tact. It was a funny, touching, and very satisfying time at the theater. The performances were superb as was the choreography. It is too early in The Shawnee Playhouse 2012 season to say “Thoroughly Modern Millie” to be one of the best productions to be presented at theatre this year, but this reviewer finds himself eagerly awaiting to experience future musical productions to discover if any will surpass the excellence of this production. They would be hard pressed to do so.

In addition to the excellent performances given by the cast members already mentioned in this review, the remainder of the cast equally excelled in their theatrical endeavors. They include Marshall Haskell as Ching ho and Griffin Wagner as Bun Foo whose scenes consisted of their characters speaking in Mandarin accompanied by subtitles. Other cast members included Chrystyna Janak as Mrs. Meers and Katy Burton as Miss Flannery. The dance ensemble included Joseph Ambrosia (who also portrayed George Gershwin and Kenneth as well as serving the production as its assistant tap choreographer), Annette Kaiser (who also portrayed Cora Lucille), Samantha Wagner (who also portrayed Ethel Peas and the New Modern Millie as well as serving the production as a Technical Apprentice), Lauren Santerelli (who also portrayed Rita), Karen Raub (who also portrayed Dorothy Parker), Brianne Smiley (who also portrayed Ruth), Jillian Dente (who also portrayed Alice), Shannon Buck (who also portrayed Gloria), Dorothy Turri (who also portrayed Mathilda), Lynn Papparlardo (who also portrayed Daphne), and William Brazdzionis (who also portrayed Rodney).

The Worthington Players production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” by Jeanine Tesori, Dick Scanlan, and Richard Henry Morris is their first musical production. The production was directed and Choreographed by Brandon Hanks and Stage Managed by Amanda Kalinowski who also served the production as its Dialect Coach. The Tap Choreographer was Katie Hauggard. The Set designer, Light Board Operator, and Production Manager was David Schappert. The Sound Board Operator was Curtis Burton. The Technical Assistant was Taylor LiBardi. Rehearsal Accompanists were Adam Benefield and Amy Tau while Missy Benefield served the production as its costumer. Special thanks was given to Tom Kirkwood and Emily Cioc.

The Worthington Players production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” continues its run until February 26th. The only unfortunate aspect of this production is it will soon be over. But, there is still time to see it and this reviewer suggests you do so at your earliest convenience by contacting The Shawnee Playhouse from the information found at the conclusion of this review. ##Boh-doh-dee-oh.

The Worthington Players serves as the artistic arm of The Shawnee Institute which was formed in December of 1999 as a 501-C3 organization designed to provide diverse, quality artistic programs to the residents of the historic village of Shawnee and the surrounding areas. Although “Thoroughly Modern Mille” is their first musical production, The Worthington Players performs their non-musical productions from January to March. Please contact The Shawnee Playhouse to learn how you can become a part of The Worthington Players and support The Shawnee Institute.

Future presentations at The Shawnee Playhouse will include their production of “Finnerty’s Follies” taking place March 2nd - 18th, Ms. Katy’s Dance production of “Peter Pan the Ballet” taking place March 2nd and 3rd, The Kaleidoscope Players’ production of “The Thwarting of Baron Bolligrew” taking place March 23rd until April 1st, The Prestige Productions presentation of “Love, Sex, and The I. R. S.” taking place April 6th - 15th, and The Center Stage Players production of “An Evening in Comedy” taking place April 20th - 29th, and “The Lion in Winter” taking place May 4th - 13th.

All of the productions presented at The Shawnee Playhouse are produced by Ginny and Charlie Kirkwood. The Executive of The Shawnee Playhouse is Midge McClosky while its group sales manager is Mary Horn. The Box Office Staff includes Stacey Mattern and Barbara Ross. Becky Haskell serves as the playhouse’s Sales and Marketing Director.

Those who enjoy the Passionate Art Lover level of membership in The Forwardian Arts Society are offered a $3.00 discount off the admission fee of The Shawnee Playhouse Productions (excluding Children Theatrical Productions and those presented by non Shawnee Production Companies). Please contact The Shawnee Playhouse at 570-421-5093 or Explore their website at for more information and to reserve your ticket.

Photograph provided by The Shawnee Playhouse.

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