Monday, June 29, 2009

LA Stage Scene Review: Thoroughly Modern Millie

Only in New York

Thoroughly Modern Millie (opening)

“Thoroughly modern” Millie Dillmount began her journey to Santa Monica’s Morgan-Wixson Theatre back in 1967 when Julie Andrews brought her to life on the silver screen. Thirty-five years later, Millie made her Broadway debut—with new songs by Jeanine Tesori and Dick Scanlan and a lead performance by Sutton Foster that was one of the six Tony awards won by this Best Musical of 2002. (Richard Morris and Scanlan also won the Tony for the show’s book.) A year later came the National Tour, which stopped at the Ahmanson, and in 2006 Millie made her L.A. regional theater debut at Musical Theatre West in Long Beach. Now, it’s Santa Monica Theatre Guild’s turn to bring Millie to musical life (under Anne Gesling’s capable direction), and if the opening night audience’s enthusiastic reaction is any indication of a show’s success, then Thoroughly Modern Millie is likely to be a summer crowd-pleaser.

For those who haven’t seen either the movie or the musical before, Millie Dillmount (Krystal Jasmine Combs) arrives in 1920s New York much like 42nd Street’s Peggy Sawyer, with a small-town girl’s dream of big city success, though in Millie’s case, it’s not show biz she means to conquer, but the heart of her rich and handsome new boss Trevor Graydon (Zach Pond). Boy-next-door type Jimmy Smith (Brandon Stanford) might seem an equal candidate for Millie’s heart if he weren’t poor as a church mouse—and as irritating as all get out—but Millie is nothing if not determined, and besides, if a girl is going to fall in love, she might as well fall for a rich man, right?

Millie’s new best friend in the big city is aspiring actress Miss Dorothy Brown (Laura Thatcher), who like Millie has found cheap lodging at the Hotel Priscilla, a boarding house for single girls run by the supposedly Chinese Mrs. Meers (Joanna Churgin). Mrs. Meers, whose real name is Daisy Crumpler, has a far more sinister side business—selling lodgers without next of kin into white slavery. Since Miss Dorothy (Miss is apparently her first name and Dorothy her middle) is an orphan, who better to become Mrs. Meers’ next victim? Completing the cast of principal players are the Chinese duo of Ching Ho and Bun Foo (Tony Orbnial and Rob Eriksson), whom Mrs. Meers has blackmailed into serving as her henchmen, and the wealthy, glamorous widow slash cabaret singer Muzzy van Hossmere (Alissa-Nicole Koblentz), who soon becomes Millie’s friend and ally.
Will Millie be able to snag her boss? Will Miss Dorothy escape the clutches of Mrs. Meers? Will Jimmy convince Millie to choose true love over fortune-hunting? Will the police catch up with wanted criminal Daisy Crumpler (aka Mrs. Meers)? Will everyone turn out to be exactly who he or she claims to be or will there be 11th hour surprises? The answers are, of course, to be found by the show’s final curtain, but not before a couple dozen songs get sung, a bunch of dances get danced, and Ching Ho and Bun Foo learn some useful English phrases.

The cast at the Morgan-Wixson blends performers with degrees in Musical Theater with some who’ve performed at major CLOs and many for whom musical theater is a hobby they take quite passionately. The resulting production, while not at the level of the one staged at Musical Theatre West, is still thoroughly entertaining and filled with performance gems.

Combs is an absolute delight as Millie, and proves herself a triple-threat performer with a voice that needs no amplification. (The Morgan-Wixson has such excellent acoustics that no body mikes are needed, and their absence [and the accompanying “live sound”] is one of the production’s big plusses.) Stanford makes for a charming Jimmy, and what sets his performance apart from other Jimmy Smiths is his pitch-perfect replication of the singing style of the era, a romantic tenor with vibrato that recalls 1920s heartthrob Rudy Vallee. Pond likewise is a talented singer/actor, with the All American good looks and comedic style of a young Dick Van Dyke.

As Miss Dorothy, Thatcher proves herself as versatile as she is lovely and talented, the show-stopping belt of her powerhouse performance as Kate in The Wild Party transformed here into a beautiful light-opera soprano. (She’s a delightful Miss Dorothy as well.) Koblentz has the production’s most gorgeous voice, a rich mezzo which she displays in “Only In New York” and “Long As I’m Here With You,” and great comedic chops when she impersonates a slightly overage orphan in a plan to rescue Mrs. Meers latest victim. Obnial and Eriksson get many laughs with their good-natured send-up of Asian clichés. As Millie’s hilariously anal-retentive supervisor Miss Flannery, Melissa Falarski is another cast standout.

Finally, stealing every scene she’s in is the marvelous Churgin as Mrs. Meers, a role which won Harriet Harris the Tony. Churgin gets every one of Mrs. Meers laughs, utters her trademark “Sad to be arr arone (=all alone) in the world” to repeated comic effect, and sings a slyly hilarious “They Don’t Know.”

Paul Reid and Allan Penales have choreographed the production (Rob Ashford won a Tony for the Broadway original) to bring out the best in the ensemble, not all of whom have dance training, and the results are admirable. Standout numbers include the title song (lyrics by Sammy Cahn, music by Jimmy Van Heusen), The Nutty Cracker Suite (derived from Tchaikovsky), and my very favorite, “Forget About The Boy.” Vocally, the ensemble couldn’t be better, nor could their harmonies under Gesling’s excellent musical direction. The enthusiastic, committed cast is completed by Jessica Breslow (Pearl Lady), Joel D. Castro (Dexter), Kelly Belle Moore (Ethel Peas), Patrick Moore, Danielle Morris (Gloria), Marc Ostroff (George Gershwin), Vincent Perez (Kenneth), Marina Phillips, Jessica Racioppo Freeman (Rita), Ken Reisch (Rodney), Holley Replogle-Wong (Cora), dance captain Zan Roberts (Lucille, Daphne), Glenn Rodriguez, Alexa Teichgraeber (Alice), Steve Weber (Letch), and Shaina Zalma (Ruth).

Though Thomas A. Brown’s set design reveals the show’s limited budget, it amply fulfills the production’s needs. Costumes by Ellen C. King are the design strong point, dozens and dozens of 1920s outfits, from office wear to elegant evening gowns, and an “Oriental” kimono for Mrs. Meers with a headdress that keeps on getting laughs. Bob Marino’s sound design makes the best of the limitations of the Morgan-Wixson’s sound system (songs are performed to pre-recorded tracks), and actors and singers’ voices are always heard sharp and clear. Only William Wilday’s okay lighting design lacks the brightness and pizzazz that a musical like Millie cries out for.

The Santa Monica Theatre Guild has been offering Santa Monicans quality theater for sixty-three years now (Thoroughly Modern Millie is their 483rd production!) as well as giving talented Angelinos the opportunity to perform in a professional setting. (I know. As a teenager, I appeared in The York Nativity Play and attended many productions at the then Morgan Theatre.) Thoroughly Modern Millie continues the tradition in fine fashion indeed.

Morgan-Wixson Theatre, 2627 Pico Boulevard, Santa Monica. Through August 1. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00. Sundays at 2:00. Reservations: 310 828-7519

--Steven Stanley
June 27, 2009

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Nuns Gone Wild

Alissa-Nicole Koblentz (Sister Berthe),Mirai Booth-Ong (Sister Margaretta) and Taylor Pyles (Sister Christian) Just a silly thing we concocked backstage before our final performance of The Sound of Music. Have a laugh with us!