I suppose it can’t be easy following in the footsteps of the likes of Julie Andrews in the motion picture and Sutton Foster in the original Broadway production of Thoroughly Modern Millie. And while Joanne Clifton in the title role of Millie Dillmount doesn’t quite have the vocal belt of her predecessors, there remains a broad set of human emotion on display, from the ambition and drive to pursue Millie’s sort of ‘thoroughly modern’ American Dream, to the disappointment and heartbreak that comes from setbacks, whether professional, personal or both. Clifton has, of course, wowed television audiences with her dancing for some years now on BBC Television’s Strictly Come Dancing, and those dancing skills are very much in evidence in this production.
When the film was released in 1967, the storyline was set in 1922, such that even then ‘modern’ had to be understood in context. Here, fifty years on, there may have been a missed opportunity to update the setting. The dilemma for a theatrical adaptation like this one is that a rigid and solidly faithful rendering on stage may lead to accusations of lack of imagination, but if it were changed substantially it may be so far removed from the original that the production risks alienating audiences who know and love Thoroughly Modern Millie for what it is. But, having put in new music (Jeanine Tesori) and lyrics (Dick Scanlan), the plot could have been brought more up-to- date too.
This is particularly evident through the role of Mrs Meers (Lucas Rush), who puts on a faux Chinese accent, whenever it suits the narrative for her to do so. I have reflected on whether this is an example of ‘yellowface’, and with reluctance, I can only conclude that it is, especially with the face paint on Mrs Meers. There is, to be blunt, a subplot that would appear to reinforce certain stereotypical viewpoints, in a similar way to traditional portrayals of Asian characters in (certain) pantomimes. I find it unfunny and a tad old-fashioned; others may feel more strongly and deem it downright offensive. There’s also a premise that it is ‘thoroughly modern’ – spoiler alert – for a woman to achieve success merely by marrying into money. It is laughable at best and uneasy at worst.
This production is a tad too long, much like the movie, even though some aspects of the plot seen in the film have been cut out or shortened here. That borderline anti-Semitic scene of a Jewish wedding reception has thankfully disappeared, for instance. This stage show moves along steadily enough, and while the opportunities for song and dance are much appreciated – this is, after all, a musical – the plot simply pauses too often, and must wait for the musical number to finish before it can continue.
Just as well, then, that Graham MacDuff’s Mr Trevor Graydon was able to go overboard in playing an inebriated senior manager. At the performance I attended, his on-stage antics, in character, went above and beyond, leaving even Clifton in unscripted hysterics. It was only at this point, some distance into the second half, that I felt the show truly became a musical. Much of what had happened before that scene was pleasant and polished, performed with precision but didn’t really draw me into the show. By the curtain call, however, enough fizz and sparkle had occurred for me to think this a largely enjoyable production, even if I couldn’t quite shake off the thoroughly un-modern aspects of the show from the back of my mind.
Sam Barrett’s Jimmy Smith is utterly delightful, as is Jenny Fitzpatrick’s Muzzy Van Hossmere. There are no weak links in the ensemble. The eight-piece band, led by Rob Wicks, performs brilliantly throughout.
These days, audiences have a tendency to continue to chatter away for the entire overture, which (in this case at least) is their loss. The set is beautiful and the music is magnificent. Overall, it’s a satisfactory night out.
Review by Chris Omaweng
The winner of six Tony Awards including Best Musical, Thoroughly Modern Millie is based on the 1967 Academy Award-winning film, taking you back to the height of the Jazz Age in New York City, where ‘moderns’ including a flapper named Millie Dillmount were bobbing their hair, raising their hemlines, entering the workforce and rewriting the rules of love.
From explosive tap numbers to a ‘Fred and Ginger’ dance routine on a window ledge, Thoroughly Modern Millie is a brilliantly funny and entertaining show for all the family.
Thoroughly Modern Millie
Starring Joanne Clifton
Churchill Theatre, Bromley
TUE 6 – SAT 10 JUNE 2017