MONDAY 20TH FEBRUARY 2017 – Liverpool Empire Theatre – Review by Tate James, originally written for West End Wilma
Despite its thoroughly modern title, Thoroughly Modern Millie is a good old-fashioned throw back to a simpler time in musical theatre, with a feel of Singing in the Rain and 42nd street.
Set in 1922, Millie Dillmount leaves her small town home in Kansas for the Big Apple on her quest to become a modern woman and marry her boss once she actually gets a job, claiming “love has nothing to do with it”. Millie and her new friend, former heiress Miss Dorothy, room at the Hotel Priscilla, a boarding house for young girls, under the all-too-watchful eye of hotel owner Mrs Meers. In a farce-like state of affairs, Meers is actually a criminal mastermind and former vaudeville star who ships girls with no family off into the White Slave Trade in Hong Kong. Of course, it’s the 1920s so love has everything to do with it, and Millie discovers her love in the shape of paperclip salesman Jimmy Smith, as she learns to love green glass, even if it doesn’t turn out to be emerald.
Ever since Thoroughly Modern Millie burst onto the big screen in 1967 starring Julie Andrews, it has been a star vehicle for every leading lady to don the flapper dress and bob. The role in the original 2002 Broadway production was passed from Kristen Chenoweth to Erin Dilly during workshops before Sutton Foster was plucked from the ensemble to take over. It was Amanda Holden’s turn in the original West End production until understudy Donna Steele was thrust to stardom. And now on this new UK Tour it is time for a new star to be born.
Strictly Come Dancing professional dancer Joanne Clifton proves to be a triple threat as Millie: the incredible dancing we’ve come to know on Saturday evenings matched with impressive pipes in her big numbers and real gumption in her acting scenes. She captures the essence of Millie, and carries the entire production with her energy and warmth.
Graham MacDuff as Millie’s authoritative boss Mr Trevor Graydon the Third gives Clifton a run for her money and steals the limelight in a series of brilliantly delivered comic songs and routines, but watch out for his drunk scene – a highlight! Sam Barrett gives us a very young but charming Jimmy Smith; Katherine Glover is sweet as pie with a gorgeous soprano as the beautiful and innocent Miss Dorothy; and Jenny Fitzpatrick delivers the powerhouse vocals and Hollywood charm of Muzzy Van Hossmere with style.
It is only Michelle Collins who doesn’t live up to the finesse of her co-stars, nailing neither her american accent or the required affected chinese accent that is her disguise as Mrs Meers. Indeed, with hammed up voice and eccentric gestures in her kimono and chopsticks, she reads more as Widow Twankey than the true villain of this, otherwise well cast, musical.
Director and Choreographer Racky Plews presents us with some fun dance routines and makes use of the basic set design, but does need to rein in the eccentric gesticulation from most of the cast members. This show may be written as a pastiche to old fashioned musicals but it is was most definitely written for a contemporary audience and so greater care could have been spent in telling the farce-like comedy story, especially in the complicated slave-trade storyline, though that fault is shared with Collins. Thankfully, Clifton and MacDuff were able to drive it through whenever the pace began to drag.
The sound of the roaring twenties, though, is tangible with the eight-piece band, under the direction and supervision of Rob Wicks, playing Jeanine Tesori’s Tony-nominated jazz score brilliantly, setting the tone from the first note of the overture until the final bow.
The infectious energy of this charming musical will certainly have you tapping your feet and whistling as you leave the theatre, and, although the production values may be more like green glass, Joanne Clifton sparkles like an emerald!