MAGNA — Thoroughly Modern Millie is one of these shows that started as a movie, then was adapted for the stage by Jeanine Tesori (music), Dick Scanlan (book and lyrics), and Richard Morris (book). Unlike some that did not transfer well, the stage version is lovely, full of energy, and quite enjoyable. The story follows Millie, a girl from a small town in the Midwest, as she tries to build a new, modern life for herself in Manhattan during the roaring ’20s, and (of course) it involves love, excitement, mystery, and humor.
As the show is set in 1922, any production of this show needs to pay close attention to the costumes. The 1920’s had a very signature look to them, and the Empress’s adaptation of this show did a fine job of recreating the feel of the ’20s thanks to costumers Michele Brown, Jamie Victor, Vicki Firth, and the Sandy Performing Arts Guild. I was especially impressed with the costumes used during the dance scene entitled The Nuttycracker Suite. Next, I would like to mention the choreography by Christian Saling and Michael Mckinlay. In the show, there are two numbers where the choreography plays an essential role in the storyline, “Forget About the Boy,” and “The Speed Test.” I was a bit concerned going into the show that the tap dancing might be eliminated from the show, which would have detracted from those numbers. Thankfully, the tap dancing was present and done well. However, the opening number and a few of the other chorus numbers felt a little too large in the choreography for the small Empress stage. Having attended productions at the Empress in the past, I have been impressed with staging choices that put part of the cast on the higher stage level or in the aisles. This production had a pretty large cast, and the small stage seemed to cause a bit of crowding during the chorus numbers, leaving some of them looking slightly chaotic at times.
Overall, the performers in this production were good, with a few stand outs. The first was Ricardo Ramirez as Ching Ho. Having seen this show many times (from the original Broadway version, to the small Millie Jr. performed in junior high) I can say that I had never felt much of a connection to Ching Ho before. However, the endearing way that Ramirez was able to build the character was impressive. There is one line (where he is practicing an important sentence in English rather than his native Chinese) that actual elicited a few sweet sighs from the audience. I also thoroughly enjoyed the performance of Lacey Loop as Mrs. Meers. The character of Mrs. Meers is one that an actress can have a lot of fun with if she chooses to do so. I was impressed with how Loop was able to allow herself to really get into the fun side of being evil, especially with the song “They Don’t Know.”
Johnny Hebda played a wonderful Jimmy, and Hebda has a strong, powerful voice. Surprisingly, it was not the more powerful numbers that I enjoyed most, but the fun playfulness and sweetness that he exhibited with the song “I Turned the Corner.” And of course, a show entitled Thoroughly Modern Millie could not have been enjoyed without having a strong Millie. Thankfully, Christin Saling was definitely capable of tackling the role. When she first entered the stage, she seemed just as sweet as one would expect a young girl from the middle of nowhere to be, stepping into the big city and hoping to figure out how to make a home there. Honestly, it made me a little nostalgic for the day after I graduated college and moved to New York, quite naïve like Millie. Saling was able to show how that naiveté can be recognized and changed throughout the course of a show and character development. At the same time, she displayed some wonderful singing and dancing capability, particularly impressing me during the complicated “The Speed Test.” In this number she has to sing, sing faster, sing even faster, and tap dance and type at the same time. Not an easy feat, and yet she excelled.
The strong performances of the main characters made the show worthwhile, though I would suggest that the size of the stage should be taken into consideration when developing the cast. I would have preferred to have a smaller chorus and therefore a little less crowding and chaos on the stage, or to revamp the staging slightly to make a more balanced use of the space in the theater. But overall, this Thoroughly Modern Millie is thoroughly enjoyable nontheless.