The most controversial new show of the Broadway season turns out not to be the big musical about the nasty nightlife columnist, or even the comedy about the man in love with the goat. No, it’s “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” This seemingly innocuous new tuner, about a sweet young thing trying to make it big, matrimonially speaking, in the big city, has inspired an extraordinary volume of industry tongue-wagging, with opinion ranging from rabidly pro to rabidly con and all points in between.
The debating may continue indefinitely, but the show’s fortunes — matrimonially speaking — may rest on its ability to overcome some parental disapproval (mixed critical notices) to forge a happy union with popular audiences. In recent years, new Broadway musicals have largely eschewed the old-fashioned pleasures that “Millie” is happy to provide: tapping feet, glitzy sets and costumes, happy-ever-afters and smiles for days. The production serves them up in abundance, with chipper, hard-working professionalism and polish; absent are the soul and spirit that are needed to sprinkle magic dust over the mechanical efficiency and transform the evening into something memorable.
You don’t have to look very far to discover the original source of that soullessness: Just rent the bloated 1967 musical on which the show is based. A post-“Mary Poppins” Julie Andrews vehicle that goes to desperate lengths to capitalize on just about every Broadway success of the time, beginning with Andrews’ similar flapper-era stage hit “The Boy Friend,” it’s about as guilty as guilty pleasures get. Where else can you see Mary Poppins singing in Hebrew? Carol Channing shot out of a cannon? Beatrice Lillie speaking fake Chinese? Or indeed, Beatrice Lillie at all? I ask you!
The movie is framed as a tongue-in-cheek spoof of silent pictures, with a Keystone Kops chase finale and the somewhat haphazard insertion of title cards. Much of that pop-eyed attitudinizing has been scraped away by the creators of the stage version, who include book writer and lyricist Dick Scanlan (he shares credit for the book with the movie’s late screenwriter, Richard Morris), composer Jeanine Tesori and director Michael Mayer. But what’s underneath doesn’t exactly feel newly minted: It’s a somewhat coy and convoluted romantic farce that, served up in more straightforward musical terms, is on the synthetic and shallow side.
The plot follows the determined efforts of small-town girl Millie Dillmount (Sutton Foster) to make a mercenary match in Roaring ’20s Gotham. Her plan is to get a job as a “stenog” and marry the boss, and she finds an eligible candidate in Trevor Graydon (Marc Kudisch), chiseled of cheek and suave of voice. But Mr. Graydon falls for Millie’s pal, Miss Dorothy (the retention of this moniker seems a bit odd in the less arch atmosphere of the stage show), a dainty lass from California who hopes to wash away some of her gentility through contact with the lower orders. Millie, in turn, and against her ambitious instincts, is drawn to the slick-talking but secretly sincere gadabout Jimmy Smith (Gavin Creel).
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, or rather at the hotel for young ladies that is home to both Millie and Miss Dorothy, strange doings are afoot. Girls seem to be checking out with disturbing suddenness — girls who are “all alone in the world,” as the proprietress, Mrs. Meers (Harriet Harris), puts it with a bloodthirsty leer. Meanwhile once more, at Gotham’s most glamorous supper club, glamorous chanteuse Muzzy Van Hossmere (Sheryl Lee Ralph) dispenses worldly wisdom to the gang — to whom she is connected in ways too complicated to explain — between torch songs.
The winding up and unraveling of these various complications more or less sank the movie, which clocks in at a whopping-for-the-era 138 minutes, and they scarcely add a feeling of buoyancy to the stage version, which boasts far more musical numbers (although it retains only two, including the bouncy title tune, from the movie). They also place a major burden on the show’s large cast of principals, who must establish character, deliver songs and advance the plot in sometimes brief snippets of stage time.
The performers given the most cartoonish material come off best in this busy context. Kudisch sends himself up delightfully as the plastic matinee idol Trevor Graydon, for example, and he and Angela Christian’s Miss D. have a funny operetta-style love duet. Above all there is Harris, who plays Mrs. Meers as a hammy cross between Barbara Stanwyck and Fu Manchu. With a ludicrous faux-Chinese accent excused by a further layer of plot — she’s in fact a thwarted actress who gets into the white slavery racket for revenge — Harris has a grand old time playing the camp villainess.
Her darkly brassy solo, “They Don’t Know,” boasts some delicious lyrics by Scanlan: “I almost acted Chekhov, Ibsen, Shaw, Moliere./I almost starred as Peter Pan — imagine moi midair./I almost tackled Shakespeare, a blushing Juliet/And if the house were big enough, I still could play her yet.” She and her Chinese henchmen, necessarily if somewhat heavy-handedly retrieved from un-P.C. stock villainy here, also have a delightfully loopy second-act number that puts to clever use the inspired gimmick of employing supertitles for the boys’ Chinese dialogue.
Tesori, best known as the composer of Off Broadway musical “Violet,” seems a surprising participant in this gleefully nostalgic concoction (her upcoming Tony Kushner collaboration would seem more likely), but her affection for the musical forms of the era appears genuine, and she and Scanlan have come up with some appealing and astute pastiche items here, including a bluesy paean to making it in the Big Apple that’s delivered with smooth relish by Ralph and a snazzily hummable act-two opener for Millie, “Forget About the Boy,” that’s a real keeper.
But one’s affection for “Millie” will likely turn on one’s affection for Millie. Foster’s pearly whites are significant here: She bares her splendid assortment so insistently, so ingratiatingly, that by the end of the evening you’ll either be smiling right back or reaching for sunglasses. The grin is emblematic of the performance, which is hardworking and shiny, but to this viewer came across as heavy and overdetermined — at times even a bit crass. Foster is a fine singer and a bold comic presence, but she lacks the very qualities — natural sweetness and effortless charm — that the show crucially needs from its leading lady. (A confession: Judging by the instant and authentic-feeling standing ovation that greeted her curtain call, I appear to be in the minority on the subject of Foster’s appeal.)
In any case, charm is lacking in other aspects of Mayer’s production, too. Rob Ashford’s choreography is heavy on the insistently flapping hands and feet, low on distinctiveness. David Gallo, usually a brilliant cartoonist, has been asked to work in a more generic Broadway format here, and he delivers subpar designs: ’20s New York appears not as a beckoning jewel but more as a maximum-security metropolis. Lighting by Donald Holder comes in all colors of the spectrum, mostly in lurid fluorescents that match the occasional garish brightness of Martin Pakledinaz’s all-over-the-place costumes.
The movie’s design elements, which employed mostly blacks and whites with just an occasional glint of color, were far more sophisticated and distinctive. Indeed, tedious as it is, the film has a personality of its own — rather too much, in fact — whereas the stage version doesn’t quite have enough. Landing in a no man’s land somewhere between wicked spoof and traditional romantic comedy, it doesn’t fully succeed as either.
Coming on the heels of “Sweet Smell of Success,” “Millie” gives rise to despairing thoughts about trends in the development of new musicals. Along with source material, Broadway seems to be importing production techniques from Hollywood, assuring that material that’s widely regarded as full of promise and style gets developed into artistic mediocrity before finally arriving in the marketplace.