Gimme, gimme that gorgeous “Modern Millie”

Capital Times, 08/16/2008 [original]

Kenneth George nearly steals the show of “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” and he isn’t even in the cast.

The third year MFA Scene Design major at UW-Madison has created a sweeping, striking set in the Wisconsin Union Theatre, inspired by art deco and meticulous in every detail. A performance on such a stage could seem like an afterthought.

Delightfully, when the company appears onstage they do not disappoint for a moment, clad in Rebecca Sites’s beautiful costumes and tapping as fast as they can. Director Andy Abrams has put together a dynamite show, visually, technically and artistically.

“Thoroughly Modern Millie” is a natural fit for Four Seasons, a four-year-old company known for full and concert productions of musical theater. Though still young, Four Seasons has been able to attract talent, funding and lucrative partnerships with the university.

“Millie” fits the company’s niche of doing newer works: Jeanine Tesori’s music and Dick Scanlon’s lyrics won the show several Tonys on Broadway in 2002. It also provides design, dance and ensemble opportunities to students in its large cast.

Millie Dillmount has come to the big city from a small town in Kansas, looking to reinvent herself. She bobs her hair, dons a short, fringed dress and embraces life as a “modern,” only to fall hard for the first guy (literally) she meets.

Abby Stevens, a Madison native who has returned to town after a national tour as Grace in “Annie,” brings a grit and determination to Millie that must have served her well at New York auditions. She’s a powerhouse, eschewing Millie’s vulnerability and embracing her strength.

“The new woman favors reason over romance, and I am a new woman,” she claims. No kidding: if this Millie doesn’t find what she’s looking for here, she’ll make it, anyway. She’s tough as nails.

Millie’s love interests include Jimmy Smith (Taylor Martin), a skirt-chaser who “used to be in paperclips,” and her boss, Trevor Graydon, played by a hilarious Jace Nichols.

Martin’s first appearances are a bit weak, but he opens his mouth to sing “What Do I Need With Love” and the casting choice is obvious. He has a pleasant, clear tenor, blending well with Stevens on “I Turned the Corner.”

Amber Nicole Dilger sparkles as the wealthy California girl, Miss Dorothy, who comes to Millie’s hotel looking to see “How the Other Half Lives.” Her soprano is sweet in her several duets, and she’s believably thrilled to be experiencing “poverty” with the other actresses.

Productions like “Millie” live and die by their supporting cast, and this one roars to life with enthusiasm, energy and sharp choreography designed by Katrina Williams Brunner.

Anne Nichols as Muzzy Van Hossmeer delights in showcase numbers like “Long As I’m Here With You.” Amy L. Welk is well-cast as Mrs. Meers, where she hams it up just enough; Ching Ho (Jerry Hui) and Bun Foo (Peter Kao) are funny and silly as her criminal counterparts. Hui in particular should consider far more stage roles than his bio gives him credit for he’s a natural, and his voice is a pleasure.

Abrams’ production is full of polish and 1920s glamour, from the clean tap dancing to the feathered headdresses. Sites’s lovely palette of greens, purples and blues make a striking difference in the aesthetics of the show, and Casey Martin’s lighting design does justice to George’s creative setting.

Four Seasons’ “Thoroughly Modern Millie” is a beautiful, well-made show with many quality performances, a full, bright orchestra and technical design that rivals professional shows. Madison, it doesn’t get much better than this — grab a ticket while you can.

—Lindsay Christians

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