“The worst Best Musical ever!” So goes Forbidden Broadway’s deadly quip about Thoroughly Modern Millie — and it isn’t as cheap a shot as one might suppose. Though Millie captured the top Tony Award in 2002, it seems somehow incredible there wasn’t a stronger contender for the title. The musical’s not even original, really: The book (by Richard Morris and Dick Scanlan) is adapted from Morris’s 1967 film, and the score has been cannibalized from any number of sources, including Jimmy Van Heusen, Walter Donaldson, and, amusingly, Gilbert & Sullivan (though Jeanine Tesori is credited with the score’s handful of new songs).
Admittedly, the story isn’t exactly the stuff of high art. A brash, “modern,” young lass from the sticks moves to the big city, determined to win the heart of a man. Complications arrive in the form of a love quadrangle and — improbably — a white-slavery operation. On Broadway, however, the show had a secret weapon in Rob Ashford’s inventive and witty choreography; at heart, Millie is a giddily stupid 1920s dance musical, and the original production’s spit ’n’ polish helped push it over the top.
Which brings us to the biggest problem with the San Pedro Playhouse’s current production: The dancing — which should be the highlight — just isn’t good enough to carry us through the wispy and overlong book. Though MaryClaire Becan has obviously designed her choreography for the lowest common denominator, that’s rather like dividing by zero; the large ensemble, while earnest enough, is simply not up to snuff. Sequences that should soar — such as a tapping cotillion of stenographers — are oddly static, and an extended speakeasy scene is a chaotic mess. (The stage was so swamped with bodies, I couldn’t even tell when the police arrived: The number just begs for the imposition of a narrative arc. Where’s Jerry Robbins when we need him?) A gag with a tap-dance-driven elevator seems to go nowhere, while the big production numbers looked cramped and uncomfortable.
There’s also a problem with tone. Millie is, in a sense, one of the current crop of “meta-musicals”: musicals (like The Drowsy Chaperone and The Musical of Musicals – The Musical!) that comment on previous incarnations and tropes of the form. For instance, a hilariously over-the-top interpretation of Victor Herbert’s I’m Falling in Love With Someone (performed with brio by Trish Domengeaux and Travis Treviño) works precisely because it’s obviously spoofing overwrought operettas; Domengeaux and Treviño — like the audience — are in on the joke. But mostly Frank Latson directs this Millie as straight as, say, 42nd Street, and when he does, the production sags. The show is, after all, nothing but dancing and winks.
This production’s lack of meta-ness also leads it into some dubiously tasteful territory. In the original production, the roles of two Chinese launderers — played very broadly by Asian-American actors — were meant to comment on the common invisibility of Asians in musicals, as well as on unfortunate stereotypes of Asians in general. The Playhouse’s decision to cast two Latino actors as Chinese is already a world of weird, but even more so when combined with caps, ponytails, and — I swear to God — drawn-in “slanted” eyes. (Why not throw in buck teeth and rickshas while we’re at it?) When the two actors (Christopher Rodriguez and Rick Sanchez) broke into an Al Jolson “Mammy” routine — itself a nod to the blackface performers of the ’20s — I wasn’t sure whether to cringe or write a dissertation. The moment is either “meta-meta-” (uncharted waters for the Playhouse!) or in very poor taste.
Still — and this is the happy news — there are compensations, particularly in the talents and, at times, ingratiating performances of the lead thespians. Hayley Burnside makes for a thoroughly competent Millie, though stronger as an actress than a singer. David O. Davila can put over a tune, but never clicks as the romantic lead.
Annella Keys chews the scenery as the sinister Mrs. Meers, though her accent often seemed Mandarin by way of Munich. Sherry Gibbs Houston anchors the musical as a tunefully bonne vivante benefactress.
Though there were sound problems throughout opening night’s performance, a thoroughly modern mishap with a MacBook knocked out Andrew Hendley’s human-and-computer orchestra for about eight bars, resulting in a Divertingly A Cappella Millie. (For the record, Davila covered nicely.) Donald Fox and William J. Stewart’s set and lighting provided an appropriately art deco mise–en–scène for this flapper-era tuner.
Those who are new to Millie may well enjoy the evening for what it is: a self-aware throwback to the corny musicals of yore. Those who caught Millie’s extravaganza of dance at the Majestic a few years ago, however, are likely to be slightly — perhaps even thoroughly — disappointed. •
Thoroughly Modern Millie
8pm Fri & Sat, 2:30pm Sun
Through Aug 24
San Pedro Playhouse
800 W. Ashby