It’s not just because the title song refers early on to “check(ing) your personality” that one has long been tempted to ask whether the Tony-winning “Thoroughly Modern Millie” does, in fact, have one. Well, in London it does. This may not be the first West End incarnation of a Broadway Tony winner to look cheaper and less sumptuous in London than it did in New York (“Contact” and “Tommy” were among previous transfers that suffered a similar fate), but what David Gallo’s already metallic sets lack in visual elan — the elevator looks noticeably rickety — this “Millie” makes up in heart. In traveling eastward, a hard-edged, even strident Broadway money machine has taken a new look at the humans that make it tick.
On Broadway, the title was — at least at first — this musical’s selling point, well before Sutton Foster and Harriet Harris won their performance Tonys. By contrast, the West End version, also directed by Michael Mayer, has two bona fide above-the-title names to lend some box office bounce: U.K. TV star Amanda Holden, making a winning West End debut as the Manhattan naifMillie Dillmount, who leaves Kansas hoping to nab a wealthy New York beau; and veteran comedian Maureen Lipman, whose Mrs. Meers survived an initially dull-witted opening-night audience response to leave a supremely funny and bitchy imprint on this least PC of parts. (Among her biggest laughs: the ad-libbed, “Now where were we?” following one of several scenic mishaps.)
Can Holden cut it? Auds will be divided in their response, especially those who crave the sort of hard-edged efficiency that a mightily hard-working Foster brought to the title role. Holden is less experienced and softer, quieter of voice (though when she doesn’t have to belt, her singing more often than not is lovely) and clearly not a natural dancer. But the result, perhaps paradoxically, is to humanize this so-called “pioneer woman”: the “modern” who has to learn, as the chanteuse Muzzy (Sheila Ferguson, making something of a part that seemed to entirely defeat its Broadway originator, Sheryl Lee Ralph) puts it with agreeable predictability, to “follow your heart.”
“Millie” is probably Broadway’s mildest major Tony winner in recent years, and the London version may suffer from opening in such proximity to the West End transfer of Trevor Nunn’s National Theater staging of Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes,” a comparable bit of period fluff packed full of precisely the aggression that “Millie” has thankfully lost somewhere along the line. The fact is, this is one of the better-cast Broadway-to-London musical transplants of late, especially in two key supporting roles. Playing Miss Dorothy Brown, Millie’s tuneful friend in the boarding house cartoonishly presided over by Mrs. Meers and her two Oriental sidekicks (they’re the ones who get the second act’s subtitled, and sensationally funny, “Mammy”), Helen Baker is a quiet yet consistent knockout. So is Craig Urbani, an Olivier nominee for the West End “Contact,” who reaches newly imposing heights of self-absorbed hunkdom as Millie’s booming-voiced boss.
On the debit side, you wish at once that someone of Urbani’s authority had been cast as Millie’s eventual beloved, Jimmy, the caddish rich kid possessed of no charm at all, in Mark McGee’s indifferent reading. And one can only feel sorry for the buffoonish hash that the script makes of the likes of Dorothy Parker (of all people!), while the cast list mentions George and Ira Gershwin among the characters: Hmmm, not that I could tell.
But whereas on Broadway, something about the hard sell of the occasion made one want to take the material more seriously than it warranted (the show features what must be the silliest reconciliation scene since, well, “Cymbeline”), this kinder, gentler “Millie” may not kick as high, but what it lacks in finesse, it makes up for in feeling.