Thoroughly Modern Millie

I went to see the Orpheus production of Thoroughly Modern Millie (the musical - first shown in 2002) this Friday (opening night) at the Centrepointe theatre. This was one of their more entertaining productions, mostly due to the lightness of the story. Of course, it helps that the actual production was quite good too.

The story revolves about Millie Dillmount, a small town girl who is escaping to a better life in New York city. Out of money, she stays at the women only Hotel Priscilla. It's run by Mrs. Meers, a Chinese lady (you-know-who did the kimono) with a classical Chinese hairstyle, and accented English (that L to R shift). She's helped by two Chinese labourers with canonical mustaches. Did they really have Fu Manchu style mustaches then or is it just fictional? They do actually sing in Chinese (good training there!) with English subtitles displayed on a pair of flat panel screens flanking the stage. It's worth going just to see them and the evil hotel manager trying to get them to work - she doesn't speak Chinese, even though she has that accent... It's also fun hearing some familiar songs in Chinese. The story continues on with Millie's plan to marry the rich boss conflicting with a suitor she's inadvertently inspired. The story zigs and zanily zags to a fun and happy ending.

Let's start that negative criticism with the sound. Apparently the lead started a bit flat until she had warmed up, though I didn't notice. The main thing for me was that the sung words were quite understandable from all the actors, even on occasion in a fake Chinese accent. Or even in Chinese, if I knew it. The live orchestra successfully played the music; I'll let others more competent describe it in detail. My only complaint about the sound was that the amplified audio was misdirectional on occasion, though that's a minor quibble when compared to successfully making the actors audible.

The sets were a mixed collection from weak to excellent, though I can guess why. The most noticably weak one was the initial street scene painted on canvas. Perhaps it was done that way to hide scene changes. But in comparison to the other sets, it was flat and drab even though brightly coloured. The hotel lobby was good (with a nice big knife switch to control the Vacancy sign). The hotel corridor was good too with doors niftily implanted in a wall lowered down from the stage ceiling.

The insurance office was even better, with secretaries at a grid of desks with antique typewriters (making me wonder when that rippled gray matt metal finish was invented and then causing me to contemplate how grid computing hasn't changed much). Even though they were sharing the same stage, the boss's office, and to a lesser extent the office manager, had almost palpable social barriers between them and the secretaries. Okay, there was a bit of a wall there too. That set may be sparse, but it hit all the visual points to make you think it was a more substantial 1920's office.

The cafe set was nice and three dimensional, giving a feeling of the space and distance (particularly when the office manager is hiding at one side from the boss at the center). One of the best scenery tricks was the outside of the office - done by turning the wall sections 180 degrees around during the play to show the suitor on the window ledge outside. The final basement was nicely implied by wall fragments and stairs.

Lighting? Fine. Though maybe that drab street set was too well and uniformly lit. Maybe have shadows? Or a better set :-)

The acting and dancing was good as usual. I particularly liked the over-the-top Mrs. Meers and her Chinese slaves. Millie and her beau were done nicely, as well as the square jawed hard haired boss. Miss Flannery stood out more than her role as the office manager would suggest, I'm not sure if that's the actress or the story. The supporting cast supported well, and did their "business" of a good variety of background action in the noted Orpheus fashion. Though there was a glitch with a lost hat at the beginning - should you ignore it or kick it into the wings or pick it up as unscripted "business"? Just leaving it there was a bit awkward looking.

So if you wish to have an enjoyable bit of fun for the evening, go and see Thoroughly Modern Millie. And watch out for those Chinese songs!

- Alex

Copyright © 2008 by Alexander G. M. Smith.