Who doesn’t move to New York to strike it rich? Whether you’re hunting for money, a job, or romance, making it in the city has always been all about luck and pluck, even in 1922. And when Millie Dillmount strides into town, she’s already got the pluck—she’s just ravenous for the luck. In 1967, the daffy film Thoroughly Modern Millie starred the chipper chirper Julie Andrews in the title role; the Tony-winning Broadway adaptation featured megawatt rising actress Sutton Foster, who, in a dazzling shot of luck, went from understudy to star during the show’s out-of-town tryout, stoking the hopes of struggling actresses toiling in temp jobs everywhere.
And now, in the footsteps of Andrews and Foster, comes Alison Luff, an eminently watchable young actress who more than fills Millie’s high heels—she makes them her own. A warm and welcome tonic for these cold winter months, the Gallery Players’ winning production of Thoroughly Modern Millie is a must-see mostly for her exuberant performance.
On Broadway, Millie more than filled out the massive Marquis Theatre with its zippy dance numbers and shiny scenery, so I was initially skeptical about how the show would work in a more intimate, Off-Off-Broadway-sized space. But tucked into this smaller venue, the show’s charms are only more obvious—there’s still plenty of dancing and gleaming grins galore, but the characters and the comedy are all the more vivid when viewed from a cozier seat.
A hybrid of classic Broadway storytelling and delectable new music—Jeanine Tesori and Dick Scanlan wrote several terrific tunes to round out the film’s score—Millie was initially criticized for its relentless can-do attitude and traditional structure. The story is certainly a familiar one: Fresh from her “one-light” hometown in Kansas, Millie quickly reinvents herself with bobbed hair and a shorter hemline, and nothing can stand in her way—that is, of course, until she is mugged and loses her purse (and one of her shoes).
It’s this screwball sequence of highs and lows that makes us root for Millie, and the show also has an intriguing time-capsule quality to it. The self-proclaimed “modern” Millie is determined to make it on her own in the big city … by marrying her boss? As old-school as this may seem, the love vs. money decision at the center of Millie’s story often feels all too 21st-century modern (see “The Bachelor”). Millie’s choice hinges on two men: her playful, penniless pal Jimmy Smith, who keeps her laughing (and on her toes); or her elusive, inscrutable boss Trevor Graydon, who calls her “John” (and makes her swoon).
Like Millie, her comrades at the Hotel Priscilla are also making their perilous way as stenographers and actresses—that is, until they start mysteriously disappearing. It turns out that the manager, Mrs. Meers, sells orphaned girls into white slavery in southeast Asia. (“So sad to be all alone in the world,” she maniacally sympathizes.)
The white-slavery subplot veers between awkward and uncomfortable: Mrs. Meers is a failed actress (badly) playing the part of an Asian woman, and she keeps strict command over her two employees, Ching Ho and Bun Foo, who hope that she’ll rescue their mother from China. That Mrs. Meers “performs” the stereotype keeps it at a safe remove from reality, but Justine Campbell-Elliott’s rather lukewarm performance never gets quite big enough to show how Mrs. Meers is really, in fact, exploiting herself.
At the center of it all, Luff makes a thoroughly marvelous Millie—she shows us both Millie’s confidence and insecurity (sometimes simultaneously), and she nails the triple-threat demands of the role. She is both a confident dancer and an impeccable singer, but what makes Luff’s performance most distinctive is her natural, nervy sense of humor—particularly in her exchanges with office manager Miss Flannery (the scene-stealing Katie Kester), who joins her in the infectious tap-dancing tirade “Forget About the Boy.”
As a foil to Millie, the wealthy Miss Dorothy is looking for lower-class diversions—including “winter in Hell’s Kitchenette.” Played with panache by Amy Grass, Miss Dorothy is a Gilbert-and-Sullivan-esque coquette with a glossy head of curls, and Trevor Graydon (the excellent Andy Planck) immediately falls in love with her in (what else?) a witty send-up of operetta at its most overbearing. In his swoony, oafish romantic gestures, Planck uses his lush voice and expert comic timing to fantastic effect.
Jay Paranada and Roy Flores are immensely charming as the beholden brothers, and Debra Thais Evans turns in lovely vocals as jazz singer Muzzy Van Hossmere. Despite some vocal struggles, David Rossetti makes a sweet, affable Jimmy—and finds palpable chemistry with Luff.
The ensemble does excellent work with Katharine Pettit’s jazzy choreography, and director Neal Freeman has made some clever, cheeky choices that wink at the theater’s limitations: instead of fancy subtitles, the Hotel Priscilla’s bellhop (stage manager DaVonne Onassis Bacchus) appears with “Hotel Translation Service” placards. Bacchus also makes humorous cameos in several set changes, which earned some of the biggest laughs during the performance I attended.
Led by the plucky Luff, this Thoroughly Modern Millie is a scrappy fighter with personality. Merely surviving in New York sometimes takes everything you’ve got, but here it looks like fun—provided you’ve got the sense of humor (and a little bit of luck) to go with it.