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2, 5-1: Thoroughly Modern Except for the Chinese Stereotypes
Sensational New "Millie" Bows on the Great White Way
By Susan Yung
Copyright 2002 Susan Yung
NEW YORK -- Another entry in the
movie-to-Broadway stakes this season is "Thoroughly Modern Millie" at the Marquis
Theatre, directed by Michael Mayer with new music by Jeanine Tesori, and new lyrics
by Dick Scanlan (who co-wrote the book with Richard Morris). Millie (Sutton Foster)
arrives in New York, eventually finding her way down the rough path of life and
love. A side plot involves a ring for 'white slavery' (shipping orphaned young
women to Asia) which is coincidentally headquartered in the very boarding house
she lands in.
The choreographer is Rob Ashford,
and he used, but didn't abuse, flapper dance steps, mainly abstracting them into
shorthand versions -- hands flapping side to side on vertical arms; shoulders
shrugging -- to provide a visual, period-evoking texture. In several instances,
the movement accelerated satisfyingly in time with the music. Ashford also provided
the fireworks: a blowout scene in the steno pool ending in a huge tableau, with
one upside-down woman's spread legs the upstage exclamation mark. The bold tap
work was executed well, including by character actors such as Anne L. Nathan (Miss
Flannery). Sutton Foster showed great range and a refreshing physical fearlessness.
On the tall side and slender, Foster's body at times seemed to shape itself into
a massive instrument designed for the sole purpose of belting out a song. Her
relatively long limbs made a persuasive case for her dancing, and she displayed
acute comic timing and a lack of self-consciousness. She also lacked prissiness,
which Angela Christian made up for in the role of Miss Dorothy, and which the
squealing women's ensemble also underscored. Sheryl Lee Ralph was Muzzy, the 'it'
girl: heiress, ballad-blaster, advice-giver, and scam-cracker.
Gavin Creel (as Jimmy) was competent
if unmemorable, transmuting from street-smart scrapper to heir. Marc Kudisch (Trevor
Graydon) played an amiable boor - loutish boss and jilted lover. Harriet Harris
portrayed the hammy role of Mrs. Meers, a Caucasian in drag as, God forbid, a
Chinese dragon queen, the mastermind of the slavery scam. Her Chinese accent sounded
annoyingly like Alex Borstein's 'Ms. Swan' on MAD TV. Her bag men, Ching Ho and
Bun Foo (Ken Leung and Francis Jue) were played as shuffling, stooping boys, until
the final scene when they were rewarded. The biggest visual gag involved the surtitles
in English and Chinese; Ho and Foo re-interpreting "Not For the Life of Me" (the
opening song) in Chinese, and later doing an Al Jolson imitation, also in Chinese.
While some of these jokes were indeed funny and as much about musical theater
as anything else, and the story is period and was written decades ago, as an American
of Chinese heritage, the Chinese stereotypes made me cringe. I suppose each takes
Martin Pakledinaz designed the costumes,
the most inspiring being navy pin stripe variations for the ensemble, and a range
of blue evening wear. In the end, one word sums it up for me: shoes. Each pair
of the women's character shoes are custom-made to coordinate with each costume,
including some pretty odd color combinations. At least from the audience, they
look wonderful to dance in, and should make for a happy cast. The night I saw
"Millie," the performers did indeed look happy, especially Foster, whose moving
solo bow in the curtain call restored my faith in the overnight sensation.
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