Everything today is thoroughly modern…well, perhaps. But Stephen Mear’s delicious and totally captivating production of Thoroughly Modern Millie demonstrates precisely why “old fashioned” thinking about what makes musical theatre tick is still thrillingly modern. Four perfectly cast leading players and a complete understanding of the power of dance in delivering magical moments of lustrous theatricality ensures that this is the best West End musical experience to be had on an English stage at present – and it is performing in the grounds of Kilworth House. Thoroughly unmissable.
I am not at all sure that I can remember the last time I sat in the audience of a musical and smiled constantly throughout both Acts, with breaks only for serious guffaws or whoops of pure delight. But the classy and perfectly zany Kilworth House production of Thoroughly Modern Millie, directed by Stephen Mear and playing a scandalously short season, saw me in that state. Unmodified rapture, to play with (appropriately) the wit of W.S. Gilbert.
Mear has not, as far as one can tell, directed a book musical before, although he has been the genius choreographer on many superb productions. On the strength of this Thoroughly Modern Millie, sensible producers should be queuing to sign him up. This is a better production of this musical than any I have seen. It wipes away any lasting memories of the Julie Andrews/Mary Tyler Moore/Carol Channing film and, despite the odd issues with the musical itself, rises triumphantly above its raw material.
The book (Richard Morris and Dick Scanlan) is based upon Morris’ original film screenplay and is augmented with new music (Jeanine Tesori) and lyrics (Dick Scanlan). Befitting a musical focused on 1922 and the “moderns” and flappers in general (both male and female) there is no deep moral message or profound undercurrent; rather, the emphasis is on joy, giddy romance and incandescent fun.
Mear understands that and ensures that every blissful moment of comic joy is wrung from every phrase, melody and dance routine. From the crackling electricity of the opening number, when Michelle Francis’ powerhouse Millie bursts into Not For The Life Of Me, through the wonderful set pieces The Speed Test, The Nutty Cracker Suite and Forget About The Boy, to the glorious finale, this is a roller-coaster of unending skill and verve.
A dance aesthetic is key to many pleasures on offer here. Mear sews musicality into every moment. Ensemble routines are slick, sublime and perfectly executed. The leads are permitted to bring the idiosyncrasies of their characters to the movement and each takes great pleasure in this freedom. Character and dance blend perfectly whether it is a delightful tap sequence in an elevator, a show-stopping bespectacled typing pool/office clerk danceathon or the frenetic hoofing of a gaggle of women disappointed by their menfolk.
Fluidity is paramount. The whole production moves constantly, either physically or stylistically. There are no dull patches or sterile moments. Mear keeps everything bubbling nicely, ecstatically. Even the quieter, more introspective moments twinkle and have their own measure. It is pure joy to experience.
Morgan Large’s set is simple but clever. The basic setting evokes the Statue of Liberty and the Chrysler Building, two great landmarks of New York. Shimmering silver provides a perfect backdrop for the exotic adventures of Millie and her cohorts. With ease the space transforms into places as varied as the Hotel Priscilla, a speakeasy, a glamour pad and the rooftop of an office block. Unfussy and coquettish, the set reflects the narrative and cushions all of the action.
There is quite marvellous lighting (it secures its own laughs a couple of times) from Michael Odam and the palette of colours on display is perfectly period as well as beguilingly appropriate. The twelve piece orchestra, including violin and double bass (hurrah!), is masterfully led by John Morton and provides brassy and buoyant support. Apart from a glitch during the title song, Chris Whybrow’s sound ensured that lyrics were always clear and the balance between voice and orchestral texture perfectly poised.
Mear’s skills are most pronounced, though, when it comes to casting the central characters. So often excellent productions or conceits for productions are scuppered by unwise casting choices. Here, Mear’s choices are spot on, both in terms of the four leads and the ensemble generally. There is no sausage factory approach to the cast here – all shapes and sizes are represented and the mix provides constant interest. Throughout, the cast seem to radiate happiness; this is rare indeed for a musical these days.
To have one of the four leads here in a production of Thoroughly Modern Millie would be a triumph; to have four is an excess of riches. Each is a star and each gives a flawless performance.
Francis is astonishing as Millie. Her slight, gorgeous, and showgirl frame suggests she can dance – and she certainly can – but it gives no inkling that she has the big, brassy and brilliant voice revealed in full bloom throughout the show. Her attack is exquisite, her accuracy unerring, and she pumps life into every vocal moment, big (Jimmy), small (I Turned The Corner) and bravura (Thoroughly Modern Millie, The Speed Test).
Francis’ great achievement is that she makes Millie seem wholly natural and believable. The small town girl with a mission to marry the boss, any boss, is a familiar trope but Francis outgrows the caricature easily. Her Millie is thoughtful, gracious, sweet and dazzling, a twinkle never far from her bright, wide-open eyes or her tap-friendly toes. It is impossible not to love this Millie. Francis grabs you from Not For The Life Of Me and never lets go – and you never want to let her go.
Providing a masterclass in comic acting, Matthew McKenna is superb as the boss that Millie pursues but who comes to love her best friend, Miss Dorothy. Tall, fastidious and perfectly tailored, McKenna’s Trevor Graydon is a nervous tic of aloof semi-superiority, but one with a marshmallow centre.
The marvellous The Speed Test (lifted from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore but given sparkling new words which work splendidly, both times) is driven by McKenna and it is a champion standard he sets. Later scenes involving drunken excess and then amateur detective bravery are equally fine.
In magnificent form vocally, his work with Clare Halse’s Miss Dorothy, especially Ah! Sweet Mystery Of Life/I’m Falling In Love With Someone, is especially potent. Genius.
In Halse’s hands, Miss Dorothy is the perfect companion to Millie: blonde, vivacious, slightly barmy, impulsive, kooky and pretty as a picture. Her ravishing soprano soars effortlessly, claiming heady top notes with ease, both seriously and comically. Halse dances very well too and is a gifted comedienne. She makes the improbable love story that unfolds for Dorothy seem perfectly right.
Jimmy, the final member of the leading quartet, is a difficult part: a smart, entitled prig when first encountered by Millie, Jimmy melts over time and finally a sweet, charming and boisterously boyish romantic soul is revealed. Ashley Day charts all of this with devilish rigour, and his essential masculine charms, blinding smile and cheery eyes ensure that Jimmy is a jewel.
Day is an accomplished virtuoso dancer, with more than a touch of Gene Kelly about him, and he knows how to combine charm and guile expertly. He is a real singer too, with a lovely golden tenor that is a delight to hear. What Do I Need With Love is especially beautiful. His comic sense is sprightly and true.
Day and Francis together are magical. With Halse and McKenna added, the foursome is awesome; talent and commitment that makes sure your eyes are fully open to this unique combination.
Michelle Bishop imbues Miss Flannery with a pterodactyl-like razor sharp wit and character (her marvellously wild wig helps with this) and she proves to be memorable for all the right reasons. Another triple threat, Bishop uses her extensive armoury of talents to let Flannery fly.
The outrageously camp and borderline offensive storyline involving the villainous Mrs Meers, her two unwilling accomplices, Bun Foo and Ching Ho, and white slavery is handled here with real aplomb. Romeo Salazar and Michael Lin are terrific and they imbue the confused and oppressed twosome with heart. Not For The Life Of Me is a real highlight.
What is clever about these performances is that they do not descend into trite caricature. No. Bun Foo and Ching Ho are played straight and true, which brings the comedy out in a natural and empathy ensuring way. When Ching Ho gets to win his girl, it is just as cheer worthy as when Millie gets her man. Salazar and Lin work extremely well together, a wry and wily combination.
Rachel Stanley, channelling her inner Ann Miller and a touch of Agnes Moorehead, is Mrs Meers and excels at the fake Chinese accent and hard-liquor-kimono look. The character’s desire to be a serious actress is firmly part of Stanley’s comic arsenal and her contempt for her hotel guests is equalled only by her rapacious desire for filthy lucre, earnt on the screams of kidnapped orphaned young women.
There is no doubt that the role of Mrs Meers offers opportunities for moments of acutely black humour; the gulf between the real vampire and the faux Chinese landlady can be severe and chilling. In a way, more comedy can be mined in such a path. Stanley does not opt for that course though but weaves an eccentric line through deception and greed which is notable for its arch excess and laughter inducing power plays. Her signature phrase becomes a hilarity firecracker, it goes off bigger and better each time.
There is excellent work between Stanley, Salazar and Lin and they create a truly memorable trio. There is a kind of Stockholm Syndrome quality about their relationship which rings true and overcomes cheap stereotypes. Their singing and dancing – trios of panache and brio – are great fun indeed.
It is always exciting when colour blind casting really works. Mear’s casting of Irene-Myrtle Forrester as Muzzy works in a number of ways, following the lead set by the original Broadway and West End productions.
Firstly, the casting immediately ends comparisons with Carol Channing in the film. Secondly, the casting adds to the inherent mystery of the storyline, making the final reveal about Jimmy and Dorothy that much more satisfying. Thirdly, Forrester’s languid world-wise sensibility is perfect for the character, and marks a nice contrast with the rest of the principals.
Especially good in Act Two, Forrester’s Muzzy is maternal and mystique inducing. Long As I’m Here With You allows her blues infused voice to shine, and the cabaret star effect is heightened by the tight retinue of male dancers who are Muzzy’s Boys.
Throughout, the ensemble work tirelessly and with breath-taking skill. Every number is beautifully sung and the routines are slick and disciplined. Comedic touches abound and there is a terrific sense of camaraderie that pervades all of the big numbers.
Small roles are played extremely well too; there is not a weak moment throughout. Especially good in an outstanding ensemble are Ross McLaren, Jo Morris, Karen Aspinall and Scott Sutcliffe.
Morgan Large’s costumes are sparkly and exuberant, particularly those for Millie and Miss Dorothy. The use of colour is terrific and the smartly cut period suits for Jimmy and Graydon reek suave style. Throughout, this is a production that is a joy to behold.
A thoroughly modern masterpiece. Rush to Kilworth House.