Thoroughly Modern Millie was one of my favourite musical films growing up, a light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek comic pastiche of the Roaring 1920s and a number of “oh, that’s where that song comes from!” musical highlights. If, like me, you are familiar with and love the film, you may be surprised at how different the stage musical is, with the majority of the songs being different, arguably less memorable, and the characters somehow rewritten in such a way that a lot of the charm of the original film is lost. I have seen the stage musical several times now, but still find the differences between the two adaptations to be incongruous. However, I arrived at The Point with an open mind and hoping that this production would recreate the magic for me.
In Thoroughly Modern Millie, small-town Kansas girl Millie Dillmount has moved to New York to make her dreams come true: become the stenographer for an eligible bachelor, then marry him – for money, not love (the epitome of the 1922 ‘modern’ flapper – bobbed hair, raised hemlines, listening to jazz music, disdainful of accepted behaviour). However, her plans soon go awry: her conniving landlady, Mrs Meers, is embroiled with kidnapping single young women (without families to miss them) as part of a white slavery ring to the Far East; her wealthy boss, Trevor Graydon, is more smitten with her new best friend, Miss Dorothy; and the man she actually falls in love with, Jimmy Smith, doesn’t appear to have a dime to his name.
There are certainly elements to enjoy in this production. Rachael Spencer is a feisty and determined Millie, with a powerful and expressive mezzo-soprano voice, a real aptitude for comedy and enough swivel in her Charleston dancing to keep even the sternest Strictly judge happy! Marie Cairns is a spirited and excitable Miss Dorothy, full of energy and joie de vivre, with a beautiful singing voice, effortlessly reaching her top notes. Tom Joyce (Jimmy) and Louis Spencer (Graydon), also have great vocal tones and both display comic skill, while Julie Edwards is very entertaining as scene-stealing Miss Flannery. The orchestra, under the skilled supervision of Musical Director Nigel Finch, sets the 1920s tone very well with warm and bright tones through underscores, ballads and up-tempo musical numbers.
Director Louise Hodson’s choreography is engaging, capturing the 1920s feel, and it is obvious how hard the company have worked with the dance-heavy elements of the show; the speed test footwork is a really good touch, and both principals and ensemble members are clearly enjoying the show.
However, on opening night there were inconsistencies in accents and clarity, some vocal tuning and timing issues musically, inconsistent connections between the actors (speaking out to the ethers rather than communicating with each other), and too many times when scene changes were intrusive and distracting or too long and awkward with dead space on stage, halting the flow of the narrative. Although EOMS have adhered to the advice from co-writer and lyricist, Dick Scanlon, to avoid portraying Ching Ho and Bun Foo as offensive stereotypes by having the actors speak in Chinese and Mandarin, unfortunately the projected English subtitles were partially obscured with shadows from the front lighting bar, drawing the eye away from what the actors were doing, and seemed to be slightly out of time, making them tricky to read quickly and still be engaged with the characters; it would have been better to have the subtitles projected at a lower level at the back of the stage to keep the words and actions connected with peripheral vision. Boosting the physical ensemble numbers by putting some of the supporting characters (insufficiently disguised) back into the chorus lines is also distracting.
It is worth remembering, of course, that theatre is very subjective and that a review is one person’s opinion of one performance. There are people who prefer the theatre version of Thoroughly Modern Millie to the cinematic one, others who will always be more enamoured with the 1967 film, and there were clearly a number of people around me in the audience this evening who absolutely loved this production; all the views are valid and that is the beauty of live theatre! However, for me the opening night was rather flat and lacked fizz, although hopefully the glitches will resolve over the run and the end result will be a sparkling vintage production.
Thoroughly Modern Millie is on at The Point, Eastleigh until Saturday 11 May (7.30pm each evening with a 2.30pm Saturday matinee).