Wednesday, June 13, 2007

*Thoroughly Modern Millie* review

The Pacific Northwest Inlander, June 14, 2007, pp. 19-20

Flapper Frenzy

Loads of gals, loads of yucks, plenty of plot holes — CdA’s current musical is almost thoroughly ploddin’-silly MICHAEL BOWEN

New York, and the Twenties are Roaring. We’re inside a crowded speakeasy, with tendrils of smoke curling upwards and men in suits casing the dance floor for the next available flapper. A flash of thigh; knees soar above beltlines; lovers embrace, dip, twirl. Proper young ladies, their hair fashionably bobbed, get their first taste of bathtub gin and doff their inhibitions. Their newfound partners mince their steps backward, oscillate their arms in S-curves, then prance back into routines of synchronized seduction. It’s a dark, sensual scene — with snippets of Tchaikovsky melodies erupting amid all the Gershwin-era jazz from music director Steven Dahlke’s 18-piece orchestra — and it’s the introduction of Millie Dillmount to the seamy side of life in the big city.
The preening of Ross Cornell's jitterbug choreography and the complex traffic-management of director Tralen Doler generate so many intricate dance moves that “The Nutty Cracker Suite” becomes one of several episodic highlights in Thoroughly Modern Millie (at Coeur d'Alene Summer Theater through June 23). With a half-dozen standout performers in the leads and even more sizzling dance sequences, Millie’s a fun fling. But the whole of this musical amounts to a lot less than its parts.
You know how phony the break-into-song moment can seem? In Millie, you keep cringing when they break out the plot. Small-town girl quests for hubbie in big city, bumps into eligible guy, mistakenly pursues other guy; love-quadrangle ensues, complicated in this case by the schemes of crooks, society ladies and a whole passel of flappers. It’s a shaggy dog of a story, overstuffed with too many characters, too many words and too much silliness. It’s so eye-rollingly poor that it actively detracts from enjoyment.
At this point, some will say, "Oh, lighten up. The story's just a framework for the singing and the dance routines. Just enjoy it for what it is and ignore the stupid plot."
But imagine if the circumstances were reversed: Imagine a play with an involving, intricate, surprising plot — punctuated by several botched attempts at singing and dancing. Wouldn't you want the actors to stop trying to sing and dance? Wouldn’t you want them to get back to telling the story?
But you can’t just cut out parts of a plot. Or you can, but what you end up with is a very different kind of animal: a revue. The result? Millie's the kind of show that makes people who say they hate musicals hate musicals.

By the time Muzzy von Hossmere shows up (Julie Powell, a whole lot more hubba-hubba than Carol Channing ever was), Millie has devolved into a pleasant variety show. Powell bosses her boy-toys around and belts out tunes about grand old New York, but her character’s only in this show to set up the final mistaken-identity ruse.
Meanwhile, in the title role, Krystle Armstrong delivers chutzpah and spunk, and her singing is, well, crystal-clear. She’s defiant and determined in the opening gonna-make-it-in-New-York number, “Not for the Life of Me.” Armstrong dances so well that you can see right there in her physical movements early on how the small-town Kansas girl is giving way to the sophisticated woman of the 1920s. Along with her demanding boss (Mark Cotter), she shares a rapid-fire patter song (“The Speed Test”) that actually comes to Millie by way of Gilbert and Sullivan. Toward the end, Armstrong builds the intensity of "Gimme Gimme" beautifully, showing us how much she really does crave a little romance. A vision of desire in a layered scarlet taffeta dress, she's on the prowl for love.
Armstrong’s character, of course, is torn between being modern and independent or being traditional and boy-crazy; at least this show has gender roles on its mind. At the top of Act Two, for example, Kathie Doyle-Lipe steals a sisterhood number (“Forget About the Boy”) with bulldog ferocity. Playing the bossy headmistress of a typing pool, she’s a grandmother-pixie who can still do gymnastics. When her 4-foot-10 frame strutted offstage, there were cheers.
After an eight-year absence, Bobbi Kotula returns to CdA Summer Theatre as the scheming manager of a hotel that checks in unsuspecting girls and makes sure they don’t check out — except as unwilling call girls. The stage comes alive when Kotula flips in and out of accents and tosses off perfectly timed sarcastic asides. Too bad she’s stuck with the character of a walking, talking Oriental stereotype. But there was a delightful moment when her Mrs. Meers, bragging about her acting ability, said, “I almost starred as Peter Pan” – and the CdA audience, some clearly recalling Kotula’s successes here, roared their approval.
As Millie’s love interest, Christian Duhamel has a winsome, light-on-his-feet quality that serves him well during the scene when he woos Millie by tap-dancing on the ledge of a skyscraper.
Cotter plays a punctilious exec whose heart is punctured when first he lays eyes on Miss Dorothy Brown, portrayed by Charissa Bertels with bouncy curls and fluttering eyelashes. In the send-up of cheesy romance in “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life,” Bertels swoons and flounces her way across the stage while the barrel-chested Cotter is actually en pointe. It’s hilarious — but then the plot comes rumbling through, once again deflating an entertaining musical number with its convoluted nonsense.
“Gimme, gimme that thing called love,” sings Millie, and her show does, in fits and starts. There are many moments to admire in this show, but playgoers will only find them here and there, scattered in bits and pieces.


At June 13, 2007 3:49 PM , Blogger Bobo the Theater Ho said...

In several ways, Bobo would like this review back.
But it went out last night in our Summer Guide (120 pages, our biggest issue ever -- reportedly weighs in at half a pound). Bobo had a few other teensy things to write in that issue, also. No excuse.
Chief regrets -- would invite your comments, as always.
The gist is: Several very good song-dance sequences, but God, what a stupid plot.
And that's exactly what I was thinking as I drove home -- an opinion only reinforced by a couple of people (whose theatrical opinions I respect) with whom I happened to share chance conversations and who indicated that they had the same reaction.
BUT ...
I went on and on (too long, in characteristic fashion) about how much I disliked the plot. Make the point and get out of there. AND YET ... I really do think that musical theater people collectively make far too many excuses for weak books, as if the talking between the songs doesn't really matter.
Second, I tried to make room for (but failed, and ended up deleting) a sentence each on how good Krystle Armstrong's physical comedy was in the wrestling-with-the-typing-table sequence and how good Judith McGiveney's costumes were, perhaps especially in the first "Speed Test" sequence, when the checked vests and beige tones of both the girls in the typing pool and of the men who wheeled them about the stage were outstanding, polished, eye-popping. As Jim K. said in his review, production values at CdA are lookin' fine.

At June 13, 2007 3:51 PM , Blogger Bobo the Theater Ho said...

Hey, that's right -- I can "revise and append my remarks" in my KPBX 91.1 review on Thursday, June 14, at 8:35 am (except it might be 7:35, but I think they're on the radio now at 8:35). As if any theater people are even alive at that hour.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home