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Flash Review 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 its turn.

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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