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FringeReview UK 2017

Thoroughly Modern Millie

David King for Modern Millie Ltd

Genre: Comedy, Costume, Dance, Mainstream Theatre, Musical Theatre, Theatre

Venue: Theatre Royal Brighton


Low Down

The 2002 musical of the 1967 film Thoroughly Modern Millie with Book by Richard Morris and Dick Scanlan (who wrote lyrics too) comes with music by Jeanine Tesori to Theatre Royal Brighton, a band directed by Rob Wicks, directed and choreographed overall by Racky Plews.


Morgan Large’s spectacular quick-assembly set, suggests the West End settling elegantly into the Royal’s stage. Paul Gould’s lighting casts depth and dazzle; the sound design by Paul Smith and Sean Quinn’s crucial in a musical with fifteen cast members. Till April 8th.


It’s been modernized. Richard Morris and Dick Scanlan’s 2002 Thoroughly Modern Millie comes with newish music by Jeanine Tesori to Theatre Royal Brighton, a band directed by Rob Wicks, directed and choreographed overall by Racky Plews.


Morgan Large’s spectacular quick-assembly set, mixing Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (there’s a steel theme), suggests the West End settling pretty elegantly into the Royal’s stage. Think green for stenography-land and orange for the shady hotel – each sequence lights in a Deco arc for lift floors like a giant wireless set. Paul Gould’s lighting casts essential depth and dazzle, and the sound design by Paul Smith and Sean Quinn’s crucial in a musical with fifteen cast members. They aid clarity and punch, not congestion.


It’s not just the music in this adaptation of the 1967 film on 1922 mores. 1967’s mores look as wrong-headed as the Prohibition on drinking in force during the Roaring Twenties (the clue’s in the soubriquet). So the chief villain changes gender and ethnicity as Lucas Rush takes Mrs Meers places no-one expects. And here’s an integrated cast, two brothers not only speak Mandarin – flashed up in surtitles – but there’s a new twist you’ll need to see.


The plot’s essentially the same. New York-landed Kansas Millie Dillmount is directed by reluctant Jimmie ‘Long Island’ Smith to a shady hotel for actresses after her purse’s stolen. You never ask why, and Millie never asks how a poor boy in paper clips grew up on Long Island. He’s in steel, there’s sparks as they clash; she speeds on meeting Mrs Meers the hotelier and a gaggle of actresses. An even newer addition Dorothy from California saves her. Rich Dorothy’s as intent on trading down as Vogue-devouring Millie is on clambering up. Millie’s coolly after her dull boss Trevor Graydon but will he fall? And who will he fall for? The answer’s not obvious by the end.


More to the point, Mrs Meers ensures girls ‘all alone in the world’ fall into linen baskets ready for the white slave trade. So Mrs Meers here can’t be Chinese as in the original. Lucas Rush is a superbly malign Charley’s Aunt, at crucial stages letting his wig fall and lamenting his days studying with Stanislavsky. It’s Cage Aux Folles bitter and twisted and Rush is commandingly funny with a lemon twirl of pathos. Damian Buhagiar’s Ching Ho and Andy Yau’s Bun Foo the two brothers working to see their mother again, enjoy superb duets, trios with Rush and in particular a show-stopping Mandarin Al Jonson-style ‘Mammy’. In this generous rewrite the brothers’ motives split with fascinating results.


Plews’ choreography here and elsewhere is vertiginous – literally on one window ledge scene – even in what might pass as office scenes with moveable desks spinning dodgems-style to stenographers and several male ensemble joining a type-dance routine. Catherine Mort’s Miss Flannery ruling the office also bestrides in a red wig with a memorable dragon routine. Another magnificent entrance features Jenny Fitzpatrick’s Muzzy Van Hossmere, rich hostess with a heart of gold, perhaps (as we find out) inlaid with emerald. Her ‘Only in New York’ raises a vocal energy already high enough, setting the first act’s pizzazz and denouements.


Misunderstandings with great friend Dorothy Brown (Katherine Glover) only get more complicated when Dorothy lands Millie’s boss herself. Graham McDuff’s been stiff as a rusty girder up to this point, but just as Glover’s supreme moment perhaps comes in her wonderful singing in ’I’m Falling in Love with Someone’ with ringing top-notes, McDuff’s star vaults when stood up by her (as he thinks) his drunken antics and ant-like legs provoke a series of physical acts that literally stops the show. It’s almost too much for colleagues, especially when he tangles with the microphone.


As Millie, Joanne Clifton’s above the title for a reason. Her dancing’s taken for granted; characterful acting and incisive singing is something else again. In scene after scene her raucous accent sharps across the stage, her relentlessly positive Millie redefines the role made famous by Julie Andrews.


Sam Barrett’s Jimmy exudes a breezy decency born of tempered privilege, a man both supremely connected and supremely nonchalant, never more so than when the pair find they’ve not enough to pay for a meal, and are set to washing dishes. Other great moments occur when Millie’s been hoodwinked about the use of Soy Sauce to clean dresses and tries this with Dorothy Parker’s. And that dress is ‘a rhapsody in blue’ says Muzzy. Friend Gershwin’s stuck for a title – and lights up. The show’s studded with such nods and winks.


This extends to the score. Not only do we get the original Overture but the Nuttycracker suite with tangs of ‘Sugar Plumb Fairy’ and other Tchaikovsky ballet moments, with The Mikado, and flecks of period hits you think are quotes but is this the score you knew coming back to bite you? Old and new justle seamlessly. Plews and Wicks have created a musical powerhouse literally all-singing and dancing, of the highest West End standards. The quintet – and they blend magnetically together – of Clifton, Barrett, Rush, Glover and McDuff have stamped character and stomped bliss on this musical.