Saturday, October 30, 2010

Theatre Review: "Thoroughly Modern Millie" @ Pittsburgh Playhouse-Sunday 31st October 2010

You can have a lot of fun at Pittsburgh Playhouse where a delightful Point Park Conservatory company performs Thoroughly Modern Millie with panache and style. The cute, amusing show becomes especially appealing due to a thoroughly charming performance by Jessica Earnest in the title role. She stays lively, sweet and convincing in a non-stop on-stage presence. Moreover the other student performers in lead roles sing and dance with the wonderful kind of polish and skill that remain a hallmark of musicals produced at the Playhouse. And, consistently, the 10-piece orchestra, led from the keyboard by Douglas Levine, sounds great, equal to musicians you could hear at the Benedum in Broadway-origin traveling companies.

Director Scott Wise gets a lot color out of it, even though that the fluffy, deliberately retro script doesn’t offer much. It’s based on the 1967 Julie Andrews-starring musical movie with a script by Richard Morris, adapted for this version by Dick Scanlan who wrote most of the lyrics to period-appropriate new songs by Jeanine Tesori. The program book doesn’t tell the audience when it’s supposed to take place but Thoroughly Modern Millie is set in 1922. Millie is considered modern by the standards of the day, not being conventional nor timid. Out-of towner Millie moves to New York seeking to marry for money and hopes to wed her boss Trevor Graydon, but also encounters Jimmy Smith who is smitten with her. A sub-plot involves her friendship with Dorothy Brown, Millie’s roommate, at Hotel Priscilla for Women when proprietress, mysterious, sinister Mrs. Meers, posing as Chinese, kidnaps Dorothy intending to export her into slavery with the assistance of two Chinese men, Ching Ho and Bun Foo. The most original aspect of the show is to have Ching Ho and Bun Foo speak Chinese, supertitles translating, avoiding making the characters stereotypical Asians speaking fractured English.

Tesori and Scanlan wrote several appealing songs, including one called “Only In New York” sung with special snaz and class by Jaclyn McSpadden as a character named Muzzy. Other highlights include interpolations of Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen’s title song from the movie along with a couple by Victor Herbert along with Walter Donaldson’s Jolson-hit “Mammy,” … none of these writers credited in the program book, by the way… as well as a re-working of Tchaikovsky’s music from “The Nutcracker” serving for a great tap dance sequence.

Jessica Earnest’s take on Millie has just the right exuberance to personify the rarely flappable flapper while Jaron Frand gives Jimmy equally appealing definition. Plus Sam Tanabe and Adam Soniak play Ching Ho and Bun Foo with wonderfully restrained innocence. They contrast with some other student performers who lack the subtlety and skill to give the characters good definition, a recurring impression at such shows, Perhaps director Wise couldn’t give enough attention to the acting due to concentrating on the disciplines required for singing and dancing. He or someone else connected with the theatre also should give a little more attention to better informing the audience in the program book, especially since many theatre students attend.

Add to all the good points, classy costumes by Don Difonso, clever sets by Michael Thomas Essad and choreography by Jeremy Czarniak and you’ll get a lot of high-class entertainment.

Thoroughly Modern Millie continues through November 7th at Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Avenue, Oakland. 412/621-4445

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