WASHINGTON TERRACE — Thoroughly Modern Millie, the Tony Award-winning musical with music by Jeanine Tesori, lyrics by Dick Scanlan, and a book by Scanlan and Richard Morris, is a modern adaptation that is still dragging its tap shoes in the past. To the first point, it’s part of the succession of movie-inspired musicals that has crowded New York marquees over the last couple of decades. Although this certainly wasn’t a new approach when Millie premiered on Broadway in 2002, it remains a (regrettably) trendy one. As for the second, there are fair questions to be asked about the show’s portrayal of Chinese people, even though it represents an improvement over the 1967 film version starring Julie Andrews. Unfortunately, though this Dennis Ferrin-directed production at Beverly’s Terrace Plaza Playhouse has a lot going for it in its lead performances, it is marred by casting that undermines any attempts to update its approach to the Chinese characters.
Thoroughly Modern Millie opens on Millie Dillmount (played by Brandi Francis), from Salina, Kansas, as she arrives in 1920s New York City. Suitcase in hand and bursting with optimism, she rips up her ticket home and sets out to transform herself into a flapper—complete with a short skirt, bobbed hair, and a plan to marry for money. Though she sets her sights on her boss, Trevor Graydon (played by Blaine Hickman), she winds up spending more time with an unusually well-connected jack-of-all-trades named Jimmy Smith (played by Nicholas Balaich). Along with Millie’s best friend, Miss Dorothy (played by Lindsay Hickman), Millie and Jimmy explore city life in the Roaring ’20s. Their adventures take them from penthouse parties to speakeasies to the seedy Hotel Priscilla, where Millie and Miss Dorothy are tenants. The hotel is run by the shady Mrs. Meers (played by Jacci Florence), who is part of a human trafficking ring. (And yes, it’s hard to imagine a less funny subject for a subplot.)
Francis imbues the title character with just the right measure of endearing, quirky determination. The vibrance of her Millie’s personality and the strength of her vocals are the highlight of the show. Fortunately, in this regard she is in fine company with the rest of the principals, all of whose singing does them credit. This includes both Hickmans, Balaich, and Lindy Page, as the worldly-wise yet un-jaded Muzzy Van Hossmere, one of Jimmy’s rich and famous friends.
I wouldn’t say that the bench is deep, however, and the more people there are on the stage, the more apparent the rough edges in this production become. This is exacerbated by the fact that only the principals wear body mics, which emphasizes the drop-off whenever a minor character speaks. Still, while it’s true that few members of the cast are exceptionally light on their feet, they (and choreographer Dede Williams) have not allowed themselves to be intimidated by the tap sequences. What’s most important is that they’re all having a good time, which is usually contagious, especially in the idiosyncratic converted space of a community theatre like the Terrace Plaza.
Speaking of the space, Millie’s New York City begins as a bare stage. Ferrin is wise to leave the skyscrapers to the audience’s imagination, since that’s the only way to realize their scope beneath Terrace Plaza’s low ceilings. Yet soon enough the back of the stage is filled with a variety of mobile set pieces. They do the job just fine, and I appreciated the actors’ and crew’s valiant efforts to minimize blackouts by moving them in and out as swiftly as possible. The longest set change I counted was about fifteen seconds, which sounds pretty good out of context, but it does feel longer when you’re sitting in the dark. In principle, I would have preferred more action on the elevated platforms to the sides of the proscenium or out front in the spotlight while the set changed behind a curtain (or something along those lines), but perhaps the visual misdirection wouldn’t have been enough to distract from the noise of the casters.
Yet quibbles about blackouts are inconsequential next to the production’s handling of its Chinese characters. Millie’s Chinese landlady, Mrs. Meers, is actually a washed-up Caucasian actor performing a caricature of a Chinese woman as a disguise. This aspect of the script by itself has raised eyebrows, but some have argued that it is intended as a satirical critique of Western traditions of Asian stereotypes, especially in the performing arts. As evidence of this, they point to the fact that her two employees—who are actually Chinese—are written to subvert, in some ways, the stereotypes embodied by Mrs. Meers. However, if even one of these two characters is played by a white actor, it undermines any possibility for this type of commentary. You can’t criticize yellowface while actively indulging in it. The production’s lack of self-awareness in this respect reduces the whole enterprise to a cringe-fest of jokes at another ethnicity’s expense.
I doubt any malice was intended, but it doesn’t matter. Terrace Plaza must do better. They should not program shows for which they cannot find an appropriate cast. Unfortunately, whatever the other merits of this production of Thoroughly Modern Millie, I cannot recommend a show that features yellowface.
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