Review: 'Thoroughly Modern Millie" at The Firehouse Theatre

Review: 'Thoroughly Modern Millie" at The Firehouse Theatre

 Ryan Maffei

Readers will likely agree that if Chekhov and Stanislavski hadn't opened the floodgates for theatre's ability to believably evoke human experience, the performing arts would be a great deal less rich. And though I'd take an evening with Albee over one with Webber any day, you'd probably also agree that without the long preservation of huge, stylized Broadway tradition, the performing arts would be a hell of a lot less delightful. Still, when trying to bottle full-tilt Great White Way fizz in the innately intimate confines of a repurposed fire station, you have to watch your levels extra carefully. And I have to admit: throughout the epic first number of Firehouse's warm, exuberant staging of Thoroughly Modern Millie, with Janelle Lutz almost bursting out of her skin as the titular small-town transplant, I felt nagged by a certain… stridency.

With her distinctive cheeks, sad eyes and gigantic, unimpeachable voice, Lutz hammered every line with that cute, exaggerated, trope-fond intonation by which one identifies original cast recording collectors. Watching her belt in front of a gently art-decofied minimalist set you wouldn't think out of place in a high school production, the giant goofy wink of it all felt overbearing for those first few uncertain minutes. Millie is an enormous, ebullient caricature of a musical – an all-stops homage to Broadway's obligatory BIGness, replete with '20s-via-'60s bad race and gender politics, and no actual modernity threatening the fun. Lutz, a born star, burned the song down, but the capital-letter conviction with which she poured herself into its readymade silliness, seconds after a groany intro from an ersatz Jean Hagen, had me prepared for two hours on annoyance's precipice. It's obscene how wrong I was. 

The party kicks into high gear once the stage floods with Lutz's buzzy cabal of cast mates, every member flawlessly deployed down to Alena Cardenez's arch sniffing and Jocelyn Draper's killer stone faces. Clad in a fabulous parade of cat's-pajamas costumes (like a vivid fever dream of the Fitzgeralds' armoire contents) and enlivened by a spirited band that are, as the adage goes, close enough for jazz, you'll be inextricably enveloped in their joy well before the proudly convoluted plot has been set in motion. Thoroughly Modern Millie itself hasn't been a classic for long; for 30 years it was a mostly unthought-of 1967 Julie Andrews movie, before Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home) and Dick Scanlan (Everyday Rapture) decided to affectionately send it up at the beginning of our dark new century. The songs are patently short on hard sarcasm, but they nibble when they can (love that randomly interjected "jazz hands!" in the opener), and even sting here and there.

The story is your basic fish-out-of-water-finds-luck-and-a-beau fare, seasoned with a drop of red herring proto-feminism. The t.m. Millie of the title hails from the proverbial sticks, enamored into expatriation by Manhattan's mythos and the romance of its chaotic capitalist clamor – and by a fabled new class of women called "moderns", new-world bastions of ruthless, mold-defying ambition. Naturally, the all-business route the preternaturally clever Millie charts to her ideal destiny lacks – for conflict's sake – some insight and nuance. Millie needs love! says a show both from and about eras when the end of the stick women typically get remained egregiously under fought by the U.S. populace. Still, though the Firehouse Millie's tongue is mostly inconspicuous behind its cheery widespread cheeks, the team responsible for it constantly and intuitively deploys the subversive irony imperative for a moderately reactionary fable in which a faux-Asian antagonist switches L's and R's.

Throughout, the imaginative set pieces with which director Derek Whitener and choreographer-performer Christina Kudlicki Hoth stuff their bonanza couldn't be bee's kneesier, and they strike gold with their leads. Lutz, her versatile visage especially equipped for withering deadpan, nails Millie's self-negating self-assurance. When she does strength, she's Patti LuPone; when she does pratfalls, she's Lucille Ball. And the primary conduit to the show's satiric core is Rebecca Paige. Her Dorothy, a sweetly unenlightened aristocrat and Millie's foil, is so immaculately irreverent Paige can set off a long, rolling laugh just by standing there in character. They're deftly supported: Whitener knew he could trust himself for the sweet buffoonery of the tycoon Millie spends the play chasing; Marilyn Setu robs every scene she's in with cartoon majesty, right from her silent, scowling intro, when she's rolled onstage in a swivel chair; Tyler Jeffrey Adams lacks Lutz and Paige's charisma and command, but has a charming restraint, and is very affecting wrapping his larynx around a lovely duet on a high-rise window ledge; and main understudy Ally Van Deuren contorts her arresting face like a master technician for three distinct supporting roles. 

Only two actors don't wholly assimilate. Kimberly Oliver, stunning stage presence a sumptuous parallel with her glorious voice, offers a faint and disengaged performance between songs. And though I can imagine Sarah Comley Caldwell finding her stride and then some since the show I saw last Friday, her manifestly effortful performance as scene-swallowing villainess Mrs. Meers (whose "Chineeeerse" accent can't shake Texan and South Parkian overtones) is the only case in which the amplified scale is a touch too much. The role is fashioned to leave patrons in stitches, but Caldwell's boldness overwhelms, a miscalculation of exactly how much thickness to lay on. Most of this Millie thrives on doling a bull's-eye wink to its audience; Caldwell ostensibly aims for the people across the street. Nevertheless, her scenes strengthen from her rapport with a pair of henchmen, Mark Quach and Hunter Lewis, game handlers of the musical's stereotyping of stereotypes. Quach in particular flips between bewilderment and tenderness with beautiful acuity.

Still, it's absurd to get itchy over a creaky cog or two in a contraption as dizzyingly intricate, and ultimately rewarding, as this one. At the end of the show I was applauding with equal vigor for every player and well-executed big idea, the scant miscalculations (like making Dorothy Parker a sputtering slob – she was a rapier wit before she was a lush, you know!) forgotten in the haze of the champagne-like high the Firehouse team had so strenuously engineered for us. After all, our current modern times can be thoroughly discouraging, and there aren't many sights as spiritually restorative as watching artists work this hard to cheer you up.


THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE
The Firehouse Theatre, 2535 Valley View Lane, Dallas, TX 75234
Runs through March 6th

Performances are on Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 PM and on Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 PM. Tickets are $24.05 for adults, $22 for seniors and $19.90 for students and first responders, and are available at http://www.thefirehousetheatre.com. For handicapped seating and additional information, please contact the box office at 972-620-3747.

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