The North Shore Music Theatre is starting off their second fifty years with the New England premiere of recent Broadway hit, "Thoroughly Modern Millie", an adaptation of a Julie Andrews movie vehicle from the '70s. Richard Morris reworked his screenplay with the aid of lyricist Dick Scanlan, but the music by Jeanine Tesori, one of today's eclectic theatre composers, is new. Tesori's "Violet" was recently revived hereabouts by the Footlight Club, but "Caroline, or: Change" done with Tony Kuschner has yet to be seen in these parts. "...Millie" is much more frivolous than either of the above, but reveals yet another facet of Tesori's ability to work with the varied attitudes of today's musical theatre, even the inconsequential. And while the show is often cited as a kind of homage to old time musical comedy, its book is a rather careless pastiche of cliches adapted by Hollywood from that source. Or bluntly, the musical is better than the movie because it's live entertainment, in this case very well done and has much more music. North Shore's production, while it successfully celebrates the inane pleasures of musical comedy exposes the shortcoming of Morris' cliche-crammed book.
Which is a problem for Milena Govich appearing in the title role. Last season, also for the same director, NSMT 19 show veteran Barry Ivan she played an energetic Carla in "Nine", topped by a poorly-chosen black wig. This time in Millie's brunette bob, her hair is right, she gets to show off considerable dancing and singing skills, but the character, reconceived by Ivan with forthright sexuality, doesn't quite click. With the result that the audience may warm to Govich's stellar performance, but doesn't develop sympathy for Millie, the girl from Kansas dropped into the Roaring '20s. The same chilliness diminishes Ryan Silverman's Jimmy. He's got the run-of-the-mill playboy down pat, and the requisite voice, but the two wind up together because the script requires it, not because of any real spark between them. Furthermore, the parody romance between Amanda Serkasevich as Miss Dorothy, a ditsy blond from California, and Richard Roland as Trevor Graydon, Millie's insurance executive boss, which follows the energetic but predictable second act opening "Forget About the Boy", somehow does become briefly touching. Perhaps it's the Victor Herbert the two burst into. The surprise climax for this second romance , in a final scene full of barely believable revelations, leaves the leading couple in a banal situation that just repeating the theme can't resolve. Maybe the NY production's initial success really was due to Sutton Foster.
However, as good old mindless entertainment, NSMT high standards pay off as usual. Central to the success in local favorite Beth McVey as the villain, Mrs. Meers, a con-artist and former actress disguised as Chinese hotel manager, who's kidnapping young women--providing they're orphans--and shipping them to the Orient into white slavery. Taking on a part written in the movie for Bea Lillie, McVey plays all aspects of this potentially offensive role with invention. She's aided and abetted by Telly Leung and David Rheeas two real Chinese workers at her hotel, trying to raise money to bring their mother to the States. When the three sing "Muquin"--"Mammy" in Chinese--in the second act, nostalgia wins again, and the slightly repellent aspects of this element of the storyline fade. The show would be better if something of the same came sooner in the book. As Miss Flannery, the office manager, kudos also go to local Becky Barta as Miss Flannery, the office manager. She's been noticed in the area for the last several seasons for her one-woman tribute to Patsy Kline, but here confirms her musical comedy credentials. The chorus of secretaries tap-dancing their desks about the stage along with her predictably brings down the house, to the credit of Ivan and his assistant choreographer, Kathy Meyer.
The production also benefits from the considerable presence of Terry Burrell as Muzzy Van Hossmere, a black entertainer who was a millionaire's last wife and now runs a high-toned club. Burrell has the distinction of having starred in this role on Broadway, and also, for a change, having played Mrs. Meers there. As befits the part she gets the best dresses of the evening, courtesy of designer Vincent Scassellati and the Kansas City Costume Company. At the other end of the scale, their quick change chorus outfits allow fourteen hard-working gypsies to populate New York. There's a real air of professionalism to the club scenes, where Burrell is clearly the star and to all production numbers. "...Millie" succeeds best when is merely aspires to be entertaining. Russell Parkman's ingenious set pieces, including the elevator that requires tap-dancing and cutouts of skyscrapers suspended over the audience, plus Jack Miller's bright lighting keep the scenes fluid. Surtitles projected on three screens keep the scenes on Chinese flowing. The audience as usual feels included in the show as cast, scenery and crew zip up and down the aisles, adding the sense of urban bustle essential to NYC shows.
Over at Turtle Lane Playhouse, the revival of "Damn Yankees" would really benefit from baseball's equivalent; hustle. The only hope for picking up this '50s equivalent of Millie--DY also won a number of Tonys--is to never let the audience think about the fantasy unfolding before them. Unfortunately experienced local theatre director Elaina Vrattos and Turtle Lane's music director Wayne Ward just let the show mosey along. There is an additional nostalgia factor with long time TLP regulars Chuck Walsh and his wife Susan, playing Joe and Meg Boyd, while their grown son Charlie plays the rejuvenated Joe Hardy. They are good at it; their alternates reportedly also do well. The flashier roles of Mr. Applegate, originated by Ray Walston, and Lola his witch companion, originated by Gwen Verdon, are played by newcomer Eric Gordinas whose devil has almost too much stage presence and TLP regular Margo Pyne who makes a fine Lola until one remembers Ms. Verdon. While the show picks up when either's on, the pace still stays too leisurely.
Bright Carla Van Meter, who appeared as Charity a few seasons ago, plays Gloria the news-hen this time and does perk things up in "Shoeless Joe...", and even during "The Game", which opens the weak second act. Her part however is unresolved however. Both women are effective dancers, but the original show really succeeded on Bob Fosse's unique choreography which has to be done full tilt with impeccable musical backup. TLP's band is merely good. Ward and his pit, hidden under the stage, make the most of the show's standards, "You Gotta Have Heart", "A LIttle Brains, A Little Talent", "Whatever Lola Wants", and "Two Lost Souls", but only the first, which uses the male chorus still resonates. The other three Brill Building products haven't aged as well, and a fourth, the speciality number "Who's Got the Pain" has been mercifully forgotten. In comparison to Tesori's invented period styles in "...Millie", Richard Adler and Jerry Ross's tunesmithing seems very pedestrian, though perhaps the comparison between the Roaring '20s and the boring '50s plays a part. Tesori and Scanlan also have the sense to purposefully borrow some real period pieces, and even parody Tchaikovsky. George Abbott and Richard Wallop's book, adapted from the latter's popular comic novel, is no real improvement over its source. Some shows just don't age well. It will be interesting to see what kind of track record "...Millie" develops, however. Audiences are clearly still ready to be simply entertained. Though the hottest musical theatre ticket in town this month is New Rep's "Into the Woods"--that company's farewell to Newton just extended for a week--Audrey II is onstage downtown.