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Posts Tagged ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’

Thoroughly Modern Millie

New Music by Jeanine Tesori, New Lyrics by Dick Scanlan

Book by  Richard Henry Morris and Dick Scanlan

Directed by Marc Bruni

Choreographed by Chris Bailey

The Muny, St. Louis

June 18, 2012

It’s funny how you often don’t notice how broken something is until you see it repaired, like your beloved old house that has lots of charm and character but has seen better days.  Then, with a little bit of fresh paint and new furniture, it’s suddenly like a new place. With the Muny, it wasn’t exactly “broken” but it was starting to show its age.   I enjoyed most of the past Muny productions I saw and the performers were often top-level, but I did always keep in mind that this was the Muny and not Broadway or the West End, especially in the technical aspects like costumes and sets. This production, the first of their 2012 season under new Executive Director Mike Isaacson, didn’t need that qualification. Thoroughly Modern Millie is a top-quality production in every way, and it seems to signify a new era of quality,  innovation  and energy for this 93-year-old venue.

Millie Dillmount’s (Tari Kelly) journey from small-town Kansas to New York City is almost Oz-like in its setup, except that Millie isn’t trying to go back home.  She wants to make it big in the city, with the aim of finding a job as a stenographer with a rich boss to marry.  Her journey takes her to the Priscilla Hotel, a boarding house for aspiring actresses, jealously watched over by the villainous Mrs. Meers (Beth Leavel), a washed-up former actress and criminal who puts on an obviously fake Chinese disguise in an attempt to hide from authorities.  From there, she encounters many unusual characters and exciting places as she discovers more about the Big Apple and about herself.  The plot is somewhat contrived but the way the show is written, as a playful homage to the 1920’s, makes that not matter as much.  It’s a thoroughly entertaining show from start to finish, and the wonderful cast makes it even more so.

I was happy when I found out that the role of Millie would be played by Tari Kelly in this production.  I had previously seen Kelly as Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes on Broadway, as Sutton Foster was out that day and Kelly was her understudy.  Kelly was sensational in that show and gave a true star performance, and she does the same here in Millie.  She sings, dances and acts with total proficiency, giving a funny, warm and convincing performance as the Kansas girl trying to make it in the big city.  It’s another Sutton Foster role (Foster originated the role on Broadway), and I hope that Kelly doesn’t spend much more of her career replacing Foster because she certainly deserves to be recognized as an outstanding performer in her own right.  She starts out the show alone on that enormous Muny stage, and holds the audience riveted from her first note.

The rest of the performers are excellent as well.  Andrew Samonsky has an easy charm and a strong, smooth voice as Jimmy, the man Millie meets and reluctantly falls for, and he and Kelly have great chemistry in their scenes together. Megan McGinniss makes an appropriately naïve and spoiled Miss Dorothy Brown, Millie’s new-found best friend who is eagerly looking to discover “How The Other Half Lives”. Leslie Uggams oozes sophistication, class and wit as wealthy singer and socialite Muzzy Van Hossmere (the role she played on Broadway), and Beth Leavel is an excellent comic villain as Mrs. Meers. She has previously played Miss Hannigan in Annie at the Muny, and this is a similar role in many ways.  Leavel makes the most of her time on stage, hamming it up and putting on a ridiculously overdone caricature of a Chinese accent.  Also putting in fine performances are Francis Jue and Darren Lee as Mrs. Meers’ increasingly fed up henchmen Ching Ho and Bun Foo, who speak mostly in Chinese that is cleverly subtitled in a little box on the backdrop of the hotel corridor.  Jue in particular as the lovesick (for Miss Dorothy) Ching Ho is a delight.  Stephen R. Buntrock as Millie’s droll boss Trevor Graydon and Tory Rose as his head secretary Miss Flannery are also standouts in an all around superb cast.

The show is full of great, well-executed musical moments, from the charming (Jimmy’s “What Do I Need With Love”), to the hilarious (“The Speed Test” with Millie and Mr. Graydon), to the sophisticated (Muzzy’s “Only In New York”) to the cute and cleverly chorographed (“I Turned the Corner”, which is sung and danced on a skyscraper window ledge by Millie and Jimmy).  There are also stage-filling production numbers like the opening combo of “Not For the Life of Me” and the title song.  Mrs. Meers’s ode to jealousy and revenge “They Don’t Know” is a comic highlight as well.

As for the technical aspects of the show, the Muny has really pulled out all the stops this year, adding an impressive LED “scenery wall” that serves as a backdrop in the city scenes and is used to fun comic effect as Millie and Miss Dorothy are tap dancing in the elevator early in the first act.  The costumes aren’t rented this year, and they are meticulously designed, along with the fun set pieces of movable skyscrapers, jail cells that look like birdcages, and the elaborate balcony set of Muzzy’s swanky apartment.  The choreography is sharp, fun and appropriate to the time period, and the large dance ensemble does a great job.  All of these aspects work together to create a suitably authentic 1920’s atmosphere, and a slick (but not too slick), glossy world-class production.

With the possible exception of the stunning production of Les Miserables in 2007, Thoroughly Modern Millie is the best production I have ever seen at the Muny. It represents more than a fresh coat of paint. It’s a complete revitalization of this age-old St. Louis institution that I hope continues throughout the season and for many seasons to come.

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It’s almost that time again! Summer is rapidly approaching, and that means Muny season. This year introduces a big change for the Muny—a new Executive Director, Mike Isaacson. It looks like Isaacson’s first season will be eventful, as well, with fewer 5-6 year repeat shows and more shows making their Muny debuts. Before sharing my thoughts on the new season, though, I thought I’d address some criticisms I’ve heard and answer the general question of “why should I care about the Muny?”

Love it or hate it, the Muny is a St. Louis institution.  I understand the criticisms– some theatre critics want it to be less conventional and more imaginative, and some St. Louis-based performers wish the powers that be would cast more locals in leading roles.  I understand both of these criticisms and agree to a point, but for the most part I love the Muny.  It’s not Broadway or the West End, but there is often top-level talent involved, and the shows are usually enjoyable and often excellent. This is a company that puts together seven full-scale musical productions in three months with very little rehearsal time per show. There have been some uneven productions and odd casting, but there have also been some truly spectacular productions such as Les Miserables in 2007. In the eight years I’ve lived in St. Louis, I’ve come to regard the Muny as an essential summer activity. Despite its limitations, I enjoy the Muny and I take its productions seriously, and I look forward to each new season.

What the Muny does well is to bring musical theatre to audiences of thousands every summer, on a huge stage in a gigantic venue in the middle of one of the most beautiful urban parks in the country.  OK, I’m biased here, but Forest Park is wonderful, and so is the atmosphere of the Muny.  The whole experience of going to a show at the Muny is an important part of its draw, but the shows are what will keep bringing the audiences back.

Some would argue that the Muny stagnated over the past decade or so under the leadership of longtime Executive Director Paul Blake, and in a way I agree. It did seem like we saw a lot of the same shows and same people over and over, and it will be nice to see some changes.  Still, as big as it is, it is never going to be a cutting-edge venue.  It has to appeal to the masses, but the producers could stand to take a few risks.  It will be interesting to see how much energy Isaacson will be able to inject into the venerable institution in his first season at the helm. The selection of shows for the 2012 season certainly looks like a step in the right direction.  Here’s the list, with my thoughts following:

Thoroughly Modern Millie

Chicago

Aladdin

Dreamgirls

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

Pirates! (Or, Gilbert and Sullivan Plunder’d)

The King and I

First off, I have to say I’m somewhat surprised that neither Chicago nor Dreamgirls had ever been produced at the Muny before. Both are well-known, much-loved shows with popular film versions, so the appeal to the massive Muny crowds is obvious.  It will be great to see both of of these shows on the enormous Muny stage.  Dreamgirls also has the added attraction of Jennifer Holliday, re-creating the role she originated on Broadway, Effie White.  It has been argued that Holliday is now too old for the role and realistically, at 51 she probably is, but  I’m not sure if that matters as much in the context of the Muny.   She’s still Jennifer Holliday, and if she performs well (and I’m sure she will), that’s what matters. We will see how it all plays out, and I’m intrigued.  I’m also wondering how Chicago will play on that enormous Muny stage.  I’m looking forward to finding out.

As for the rest of the schedule, it’s encouraging to see that there are only two shows that have played at the Muny before. One of my biggest criticisms has been the frequent recycling of shows, and it’s great to see that not happening as much this year.  I’m especially looking forward to seeing the Muny debut of Thoroughly Modern Millie, and I’m very curious about Pirates! since it’s supposed to be a re-imagining of The Pirates of Penzance and I wonder exactly what that re-imagination will look like. There will also be some technical upgrades like the new LED “scenery wall” that promise to provide a new look to the productions.

In terms of casting, it looks like the Muny is changing the regular routine as well, going for more “star power” in names like Holliday in Dreamgirls, Leslie Uggams in Millie, and American Idol runner-up Justin Guarini in Joseph.  There is more casting still to be announced, but I find myself wondering if we won’t see as many Muny “regulars” this season.  I hope we do see a few, because there are some perennial Muny performers that I would love to see on stage again, like Curtis Holbrook, Kate Baldwin, Joneal Joplin and Ken Page.  Based on the casting that has already been announced, though, I wouldn’t be surprised if a few more big names will be part of the lineup.

So the bottom line is, I’m optimistic.  Because of a few summer commitments, I don’t think I will be able  to see all the shows this season, but I’m going to try to make most of them, and I am eager to see how this next chapter in the Muny’s history will unfold.  Maybe there is hope that we’ll finally get a Sondheim show in the near future. I think Into the Woods would be most likely in that vein, and as for the older but timeless classics,  I’m still holding out hope for Carousel. I do hope the Muny surveys stick around, and if they do I will be voting for both of those shows. That’s the future, though, but it does seem promising.  This season seems like a significant step in a new direction, and so far I’m liking it.

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