Music Soars In Complicated 'Modern Millie' At Goodspeed

In the first few minutes of "Thoroughly Modern Millie" at the Goodspeed Opera House, a vintage Vanity Fair magazine is hurled and caught, a suitcase rolls across the stage and the show's humble heroine is instantly accessorized with dress, hat and scarf so she can complete her transformation from a hick Kansas girl into a 1920s-style flapper.

The props fly, and the people fly with them. With Denis Jones (currently Tony-nominated for his "Holiday Inn" choreography) credited as both director and choreographer, every scene in this show is a pretext for terpsichore. The characters are not even allowed to step into an elevator without breaking into a peppy jazz dance. There's dancing in offices, on skyscrapers, even in ballrooms.

Yet all this hoofing doesn't get out of hand. That's because "Thoroughly Modern Millie" really is a modern show. First staged in 2000, it's based on a 1967 movie that was in turn based on a 1956 British musical. Unlike shows written in the 1920s, it doesn't have a huge cast. (Some of those old Gershwin or Irving Berlin shows could have 50 or 60 people in them.) A modest-for-big-musicals 24 performers handle all the roles — essentially the population of New York City — in "Millie."

Over half the songs are solos, duets or trios. There's a lot of action, with all the luggage and bootleg-hooch bottles and office supplies being whisked about. Yet there are also moments of relative calm. That's when you can really savor the multistyled musical score by Jeanine Tesori, who took an opportunity to wax nostalgic and went eclectic instead. Tesori (soon to be appreciated again in Connecticut, when the national tour of "Fun Home" hits The Bushnell in June) finds rhythmic connections between '20s club jazz, show tunes such as the title song (composed by Sammy Kahn and retained from film version), comic operetta (the Gilbert & Sullivan pastiche "The Speed Test"), Tchaikovsky ("The Nuttycracker Suite") and sophisticated Cole Porter-style torch songs ("Only in New York").

The Goodspeed orchestra, conducted by Michael O'Flaherty, seems to be having tons of fun playing these jaunty melodies. They jazz up the tempos, blat raucous wah-wah-wah horns and swirl the sound majestically for the love songs.

The music of "Thoroughly Modern Millie" is progressive and wide-ranging. The show's plot is another matter. Closely taken from the movie, but with tongue even more firmly in cheek, it's a parody of sinister "Oriental" white-slave-trading potboiler scenarios from long-ago novels and melodramas. Such bad taste cultural stereotyping is obviously meant to shock — look at how insensitive we used to be to immigrants! — but such comedy is complicated. The show's Chinese characters are humanized and respected to the point of having long stretches of dialogue, and a couple of songs, delivered in Chinese (with English supertitles). But they're still kidnappers who speak in broken English.

The adventure scenes come amid numerous romantic couplings. Sexist old-world ideals of what marriage means are defined and demeaned. The concept of true love is dismissed, then desired. There are deceptions, indiscretions and drunken confessions, set against a rapidly shifting (and somewhat wobbly) New York cityscape designed by Paul Tate dePoo III.

Taylor Quick — a genuine Goodspeed discovery, who attended a non-Equity dance audition for the show's ensemble and instead was picked for the title role — taps confidently, smiles coquettishly and can sing both sweetly and sassily. Dan DeLuca smirks soulfully as Jimmy Smith, the man whom Millie can't admit to loving. Ramona Keller gets a sizzling torch-song introduction as Muzzy, the sage singer who helps Millie make up her mind. Millie, you see, is fixated on the "modern girl" fairy tale of marrying her boss Trevor Graydon — haughtily played and loudly sung by Edward Watts. Various love affairs are complicated by the number of men who instantly fall in love with Millie's new friend Miss Dorothy Brown (Samantha Sturm, who's flighty without descending to ditzy).

Further comic relief is provided by Loretta Ables Sayre, scowling and howling as the evil hotel landlady Mrs. Meers, and Lucia Spina as the office manager Miss Flannery. Spina seemed to be channeling great old character actors such as Kaye Ballard in her deft blend of brash comedy and gentle counsel.

There is a running gag about the alleged beauty of Miss Flannery's elbows. Jones, the director/choreographer, pays attention to everybody's elbows with his full-bodied choreography. Arms, legs, elbows and knees are bent, flapped, pointed, knocked, flipped, spun and waved in a succession of free-wheeling routines. Jones takes advantage of every chance for a dance. Whether this "Thoroughly Modern Millie" is all that modern could be roundly debated. But it's certainly thorough.

THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE — book by Richard Morris and Dick Scanlan, new music by Jeanine Tesori, new lyrics by Dick Scanlan, based on an original story and screenplay by Richard Morris, directed by Denis Jones — is at the Goodspeed Opera House, 6 Main St., East Haddam through July 2. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at both 2 and 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 and 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $34 to $85. 860-873-8668, goodspeed.org.

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