Book: Richard Morris &Dick Scanlan
New Music: Jeanine Tesori
New Lyrics: Dick Scanlan
Director: Racky Plews
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
Originally conceived as a star vehicle for Julie Andrews, the film Thoroughly Modern Millie was released in 1967 to a generally positive reception, nominated for seven Academy Awards (winning one) and for five Golden Globes (winning one). So it was a natural progression to revive it as a new musical in 2000, with a Broadway run of two years picking up five Tony awards in 2002. And now its latest incarnation is touring the UK.
Kansas-born stenographer Millie Dillmount goes to New York City with the intention of marrying for money. Her plan, such as it is, is to get a job for a wealthy single boss and marry him – the triumph of rationality over emotion, because, well, that’s what being thoroughly modern is in the Roaring Twenties. Her adventure doesn’t start well as she is robbed on the street and no passers-by will help, even when she trips up Jimmy Smith, a personable young man who advises her to go back to Kansas. Needless to say, she ignores that advice but does find a room in a girls-only hotel and eventually her dream job for Mr Trevor Graydon. But he seems immune to her wiles so she dates Jimmy and they become closer. Meanwhile, her best friend from the hotel, Miss Dorothy, meets Graydon and there is instant attraction. Of course, all the tangled threads are straightened, loose ends tied off and there is a largely happy ending.
Throw in some great song-and-dance set-pieces, and it’s clear that this has the potential for an entertaining feelgood musical, albeit somewhat frothy and inconsequential.
But there is a bizarre sub-plot that is discomforting. The flamboyant owner of the hotel, Mrs Meers, seems more-than-usually interested in girls far from home with no family. With her henchmen, bound to her by threats against their mother, she kidnaps girls for onward sale into white slavery abroad. Meers is dressed flamboyantly in Japanese dress – cue much hilarity as Meers speaks with one of the worst Japanese accents ever (this does get ‘explained’ later) and misunderstandings and language difficulties ensue. This whole subplot is played for laughs and becomes totally pantomimic in feel – one could be watching Widow Twankey.
The undoubted star of the show is Joanne Clifton as Millie. As the curtains open, she is alone on stage and sets out her marker as she sings Not for the Life of Me with a clear and powerful voice. Of course, she is known for her dancing from BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing and her prowess is clear in the song-and-dance numbers that follow. Maybe there’s a bit too much mugging, but that is by no means restricted to Clifton and adds to the pantomimic quality of the evening.
Sam Barrett’s Jimmy Smith is a joy to watch, with a pleasant light voice. He brings out the personable side to Smith’s character well and is quite believable in the rôle. Other characters are sketched in only lightly, though Katherine Glover’s Miss Dorothy looks and sounds the part with a quite stunning operatic soprano voice that soars and fills the auditorium. Graham MacDuff as Trevor Graydon plays the stuffed shirt well, though a later scene in which he is a maudlin drunk is comedy gold. Michelle Collins, Damian Buhagiar and Andy Yau as Mrs Meers and her henchmen Ching Ho and Bun Foo do the best they can with the hands they are dealt, being gloriously over the top, but even their best efforts can’t disguise the quality of their written rôles.
So something of a curate’s egg – the singing and dancing are quite superb with no weak links among the cast and they do the best they can with the material, but one can’t help but feel that they deserve better.
Runs until 18 February 2017 and on tour | Image: Darren Bell