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THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE
Book by Richard Morris and Dick Scanlan
New music by Jeanine Tesori
New lyrics by Dick Scanlan
Gateway Theatre, Richmond
Dec. 10–Jan. 3
$38/$25
604-270-1812 or www.gatewaytheatre.com

Despite having almost entirely forgettable lyrics and score, Thoroughly Modern Millie is a thoroughly delightful musical.  Simon Johnston’s production turns what could have been thoroughly embarrassing racist elements of the script on their heads, and a fine cast and excellent production values keep us thoroughly entertained.   

Feisty, attractive Millie (bob-haired Lauren Bowler) has come to Manhattan from small-town Kansas to immerse herself in the thoroughly modern modernity of the 1920s flapper era.  Part of what she thinks it means to be modern is to privilege reason over emotion—rationally, she plans to get a job and marry her rich boss (Gaelan Beatty), whether she loves him or not.   Naturally, she falls in love with an ordinary guy, Jimmy Smith (Mat Baker), and will have to choose, it appears, between love and money with the help of a socialite who got rich through marriage (cross-dressed Denis Simpson).   That plot intertwines with a very funny secondary plot involving white slavery(!) at the low-end hotel where Millie stays.  There we meet her rich, slumming friend Miss Dorothy (Diana Kaarina), the scheming proprietress Mrs. Meers (Irene Karas), and two Chinese laundry boys (Raugi Yu and Minh Ly), implicated in Meers’ dastardly scheme. 

Bowler makes a very fine Millie, although there’s no great chemistry between her and Baker’s Jimmy.  Ironically, her relationship with Beatty’s uptight boss has more zing, especially in a terrific number (“The Speed Test”) where, giving and taking dictation, they both sing at top speed.  Her real chemistry is with Kaarina’s utterly adorable Miss Dorothy (their duet “How the Other Half Lives” is a highlight).  I didn’t really get the casting of Simpson as the elegant widow Muzzy, a kind of panto Dame, except maybe as a bow to the season.  The opening night audience, though, loved the character.

Director Johnston makes the most of the white slavery plot.  Karas is brilliant as Mrs. Meers, who pretends to be Chinese.  Johnston has her push the caricature to an uncomfortably hilarious racist extreme, so when we realize she’s just pretending, it’s a relief to see that the character, not the script, is racist.  The production’s real coup, though, is having Yu and Ly (both terrific, notably Yu) as the laundry boys speaking and singing in Chinese, with English surtitles projected overhead.   It makes the show feel like a multicultural joke for Asian-majority Richmond.   

Right off the top, the title song is accompanied by a ferocious chorus of 16 uptown guys and flappers dancing to Allan Stiles’ fine, horn-heavy ten-piece orchestra.  Kennith Overbey’s choreography is terrific here and throughout the show, characterized by high energy and strong physicality, especially in the tap numbers and the speakeasy scenes.  It delights me that we now have enough accomplished theatrical dancers in the area to be running three large-scale musicals simultaneously, including the Arts Club’s White Christmas and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at the Playhouse.  

Drew Facey’s versatile set design allows for very quick changes from uptown street scenes to a hotel lobby to a laundry to an office or a restaurant.  Jenifer Darbellay provides an amazing number of colourful period costumes, though not all the eye candy all flatters the actresses. 

The Gateway has itself a sure-fire holiday hit.

Jerry Wasserman