Millie is modern, meaning she plans to marry to better her lot in life. For her, love isn't part of the equation. It's the Roaring Twenties, and she's traveled all the way from nowhere Kansas to New York City in a cornflowered frock to ensure she fulfills her decidedly unromantic dreams. So goes the setup of Richard Morris and Dick Scanlan's Tony Award-winning Thoroughly Modern Millie. Based on the 1967 Oscar- winning film starring Julie Andrews, this charming little confection of a musical is the sort that comes along all too rarely. It tells an old-fashioned tale filled with romance, intrigue and unexpected humor; and it's all frothed to perfection with rousing music and dance that make you wish you could join in.
The story follows Millie (Darcie Roberts) as she makes her way through her innocent hardships. Once she arrives in town, she immediately loses her pocketbook to thieves. That's how she ends up at a girls' hotel run by kindly Mrs. Meers (Hollis Resnik), who lets her stay on credit. All is not well, however, as we quickly learn that "sweet" Mrs. Meers is actually the head honcho of a white-slavery market. Any girl who shows up proclaiming she's an orphan is sure to end up a victim of Mrs. Meers's dastardly scheme. Fortunately, Millie has a family, but soon enough she makes friends with another new girl without such protection. Miss Dorothy Brown (Diana Kaarina) is an orphan. Intrigue ensues, but not before a whole lot of singing and dancing spin by.
One of the best numbers, "The Speed Test," happens while Millie's out looking for work. The desks, typewriters and secretaries roll out on stage with the ladies tapping as they type. It's an ingenious number filled with unexpected twists. Tony Award-winning choreographer Rob Ashford has the desks spinning about in a flurry of movement. Doors open and close, and the secretaries spin off stage as Millie meets her potential boss, Mr. Graydon (played with campy perfection by Sean Allan Krill). When Millie is hired and joins the typing pool, the secretaries reappear. There are musical shifts throughout the number, and the choreography blends so seamlessly into the story, it seems perfectly normal for typists to dance while they work.
Thoroughly Modern Millie
Hobby Center of the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby
Through January 4; 713-558-8887. $22-$68
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Another show-stopper, "The Nuttycracker Suite," happens at The Tie-One-On Club, a speakeasy that Millie and her girlfriends from the hotel discover during a night on the town. Flappers fill the stage, sliding through the number with delicious sensuality in their gray-toned silky dresses. But none of this is overtly sexual, which is rather remarkable in this day and age. Best of all, the dance furthers the story, as it marks the point where Millie falls in love despite her "modern" sensibility.
She dances with Jimmy (Matt Cavenaugh), a young man who has no money or prospects, as far as she knows. Millie must then decide whether to follow her heart or her head. And while she wrestles with her heart, her friend Miss Dorothy is wrestling with Mrs. Meers. Since this is comedy, there's no doubt that all will end well -- the charm is in finding out how.
Michael Mayer's original Broadway direction is crisp and refreshing. He's created a show that manages to capture the sensuality of the Roaring Twenties, but he's also retained the story's innocent joy, and it doesn't feel forced or naive. All the performances from the touring company brought in by Theatre Under the Stars are splashy, energetic and fun. But as the bob-wearing Millie, Roberts can't help but steal the stage with her down-to-earth style, her big warm voice and her long-limbed, energetic dancing.
Thoroughly Modern Millie is a rare trinket in contemporary theater. The story is appropriate for everyone in the family, but the texture of this production is so rich and layered that even the most sophisticated observer will think it a charming holiday treat.