Thoroughly Modern Millie, now playing at Boulder’s Dinner Theatre, couldn’t be lighter. It provides a comically paper-thin plot, hummable but hardly memorable tunes, and serviceable dialogue. But also lots and lots of fun, sparkly performances and some of the best tap dancing you’ll see around here. The musical premiered in 2002, winning six Tonys. It’s based on a 1967 movie, which, in turn, evolved from a 1956 English version called Chrysanthemum. The latter, according to the publicity material, takes place in 1913 — “the age of Ragtime, Russian Ballet, William Morris, Suffragettes, Opium Dens, Lloyd George and the White Slave Trade,” and has a plot even crazier and more improbable than that of Millie.
The beginning is familiar. An innocent girl from Kansas arrives in 1922 New York determined to find success — which she defines as bobbing her hair, dressing like a flapper and finding a rich man to marry. Unfortunately, the first thing that happens is that Millie (Seles VanHuss) gets mugged. The second is that she trips up a passerby, Jimmy (the sympathetic Burke Walton), in search of help. He will of course turn out to be her love interest, though neither of them realizes it for quite a while. Soon she arrives at the Priscilla Hotel, the kind of genteel, all-female place where young women routinely lodged back then while searching for jobs as typists or actresses. But the proprietress here is the evil, pseudo-Chinese Mrs. Meers (Joanie Brosseau), who, with the help of two young Chinese men she’s blackmailing, spirits away young girls, preferably orphans, to the brothels of Hong Kong.
Millie makes a friend, a wealthy young woman always addressed — somewhat inexplicably — as Miss Dorothy (the sweet-singing Rebekah Ortiz), takes a job and sets her sights on her boss, Trevor Graydon (Scott Severtson). Jimmy pines, but introduces her to a brilliantly successful chanteuse called Muzzy (the always delicious Alicia K. Meyers).
Director Scott Beyette has assembled a team of top-notch dancers. Some of the numbers are brilliant, both as conceived and as executed. To audition for her job, Graydon has Millie take a letter. He begins dictating slowly. With the help of a swift-tapping ensemble of secretaries and their equally swift-tapping typewriters, the letter evolves into a hyper-fast patter song, clearly based on Gilbert and Sullivan’s “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General,” from The Pirates of Penzance. To say that Severtson and VanHuss do well with this hilariously difficult task is to understate.
There are more of these jokey, silly delights. When the protagonists visit a speakeasy, we get the "Nutty Cracker Suite," a truly nutty sendup of the Nutcracker ballet, with Tchaikovsky melodies somehow entwined with 1920s jazz swing.
The musical direction is spot-on and the art-deco set is pretty, as are the accurate and amusing costumes. The action is bright and lively throughout and the acting solid, though I do wish the otherwise appealing VanHuss, along with the other young women, hadn’t adopted that high, little artificial voice. Of course the show is artificial, but our two heroines should at least be human enough for us to care what happens to them.
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There has been a lot of discussion about the role of Mrs. Meers and her Chinese sidekicks in this musical, and whether these roles promote ugly stereotypes or mock them. In the 1920s, the Chinese were the victims of vicious racism in this country, resulting in exclusionary laws, murderous violence and ongoing rumors about the “yellow peril,” opium dens and attacks on white women. But it’s clear that Mrs. Meers is not Chinese. Played to the comic hilt by Brosseau, she’s a failed and wicked American actress who is using, and therefore invalidating, the stereotype, and we learn this pretty early on. As for Ching Ho and Bun Foo, they speak Mandarin and Cantonese — no “Asian speakee” or “velly good” here — and are acted sympathetically by Alejandro Roldan and Matthew D. Peters (we’re told no Chinese actors auditioned). The two eventually play a heroic role in the plot and end up better rewarded for their gallantry than we expect — though I’m not going to tell you how.
Thoroughly Modern Millie. Presented by BDT Stage through February 19, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, bdtstage.com.