A correction was made to this review on June 3, 2004.
After watching “Thoroughly Modern Millie” for half an hour, the spectator becomes increasingly grateful for the show’s title tune. An Oscar nominee in 1967, with lyrics by Sammy Cahn and music by James Van Heusen, it gave desperately needed bounce to the overblown Julie Andrews movie, and it provides equally needed charm to the show based on that forgettable film. But one song — shrewdly reprised and incorporated into other numbers by the late, great Ralph Burns and Doug Besterman — can’t compensate for ponderous plotting and artificial characters.
Taking over as Millie for Broadway golden girl Sutton Foster is Darcie Roberts, and she makes a potent initial impression on “Not for the Life of Me.” David Gallo’s 1920s Manhattan backdrop, in the style of Georgia O’Keefe’s Skyscrapers, establishes vivid atmosphere, and a group of nimble dancers offer upbeat Charleston variations. Unfortunately, Roberts continues to perform at a strenuous, exhaustingly energetic level, over-reacting to every crisis. She shows superior comic skills, but she needs to be reined in, and this becomes more evident when we meet her best friend, the prim orphan Miss Dorothy (Diana Kaarina).
Kaarina (Broadway’s final Eponine in “Les Miserables”) is delicate and beautiful, a springlike, effervescent presence. It’s clear she would have been a more appropriate Millie, and this throws the story off balance. But even Kaarina’s winsome appeal is ultimately crushed when the production brings in a white slavery subplot — a bizarre conception that massacred the movie. Both girls, guests at the Hotel Priscilla, encounter the hotel owner, Mrs. Meers (Hollis Resnik), a frustrated former actress who blackmails two Chinese henchmen, Ching Ho (Andrew Pang) and Bun Foo (Darren Lee), into chloroforming and kidnapping attractive women and selling them off as Southeast Asian prostitutes.
Resnik is frequently funny, and she makes Mrs. Meers light rather than menacing. There’s a drawback to this approach, since it eliminates any darkness or tension. Resnik shines in the show’s best original number, “They Don’t Know,” revealing that Mrs. Meers was, in her own deluded mind, “hotter news than Duse, Helen Hayes and Bernhardt.” Her Chinese version of Jolson’s “Mammy” with Pang and Lee is an inspired touch.
As Resnik schemes to snare Kaarina (against opposition from the smitten Pang), Millie concentrates on captivating her stuffed-shirt boss, Mr. Trevor Graydon (Sean Allan Krill). Millie is presented as a golddigger in the Carol Channing “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” tradition, but her money-minded obsession is never convincing, just an awkwardly imposed author’s whim. As played, she lacks the requisite cunning, the wiles and the ice-cold superficiality, and there’s never the slightest doubt she’s going to prefer poor, easy-going Jimmy Smith (Joey Sorge), or that he’ll turn out to be a millionaire after she renounces her green-eyed goal.
In the beginning, Jimmy is an uninteresting ladies’ man cliche. Sorge, a fine singer, gradually injects warmth into the role.
For all the show’s aggressive dances and ear-splitting confrontations, the softer sequences make far more impact. “I’m Turning the Corner” features Sorge and Roberts on a high-rise ledge, relating realistically to each other and performing a subtle dance that suggests the elegance of Fred Astaire.
Another high spot is Victor Herbert’s “I’m Falling in Love With Someone,” in which starchy Mr. Graydon flips for Miss Dorothy and bursts out, “What a dandy little bundle for a fella to cuddle.” Director Michael Mayer locates the perfect parody tone in this scene, and an unlikely chemistry springs up between the two. This chemistry is so pronounced that the eventual denouement, pairing Dorothy with rescuer Ching Ho, is a startling disappointment. Miss Dorothy never seems in jeopardy for an instant, and the final chase that traps Mrs. Meers, though blessedly brief, is neither humorous nor exciting.
Janelle A. Robinson (with a hairdo that sticks out a mile from the side of her head) makes a game try at the ill-conceived part of Miss Flannery, the jealous and overbearing office manager. Portraying socialite Muzzy Von Hossmere, a wealthy chanteuse who dispenses such sage, in-depth wisdom as “follow your heart,” Pamela Isaacs adds glamour and a sultry singing voice, although her character always seems extraneous.
Lyrics by Dick Scanlan are generally witty, and Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes are a berserk conglomeration of colors and styles.
Running through all the convoluted crests and valleys, bright moments and bad in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” is a sense that characterization is thoroughly lacking, and all the trimmings can’t bring authentic heart to such absurd material.