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‘Modern Millie’ Hits Broadway

April 19, 2002

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NEW YORK (AP) _ ``Thoroughly Modern Millie″ is as bubbly as a glass of champagne _ domestic, not imported _ a bright, breezy American musical with nothing more on its mind than an evening of entertainment.

Musical-theater snobs may quibble, but the new show, based on the 1967 Julie Andrews movie, is refreshingly old-fashioned. And not because it is set in the 1920s or because it features a standard boy-meets-girl _ or in this case, girl-meets-boy _ plot.

Its story is there to make way for the music, a mostly new score that celebrates the period in a joyous and affectionate manner. The work by composer Jeanine Tesori and lyricist Dick Scanlan floats airily through the musical, which opened Thursday at the Marquis Theater, lightening a tale that sometimes gets a little too cluttered for its own good.

The film, while not exactly a classic, did boast a cast that, besides Andrews, included Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Channing, Beatrice Lillie and James Fox, as well as a persistent title tune wisely retained here.

Millie Dillmount, the ambitious title character, is a direct descendant of Lorelei Lee and Polly Browne, the equally assertive heroines of such flapper musicals as ``Gentlemen Prefer Blondes″ and ``The Boy Friend.″

Right off the train from Kansas, Millie sets her sights on making it big in Manhattan, a New York epitomized in designer David Gallo’s settings of skyscrapers, speakeasies and penthouse apartments. She bobs her hair, shortens her skirt and starts looking for a man, preferably a rich one.

If Millie is not as comedic as Lorelei or as crisply efficient as Polly, she is a sturdy enough young lady, particularly in Sutton Foster’s ingratiating performance. It takes a while for Foster to win you over, but win she does, particularly in her 11 o’clock number called ``Gimme, Gimme.″ Foster is all arms and legs, an appealingly gawky gal (except when she dances) with a great big voice.

Newcomer Millie moves into an establishment for young ladies called the Priscilla Hotel. It is presided over by the mysterious Mrs. Meers, played with a hilarious deadpan campiness by Harriet Harris looking a bit like Rosalind Russell in ``Auntie Mame.″ Meers, with the assistance of two Chinese henchmen, runs a white slavery operation out of her establishment. She specializes in finding female orphans and packing them off to Hong Kong.

Scanlan, who also wrote the book, has tamped down most of the Asian stereotypes from the movie. He lets the Chinese henchmen converse _ and sing _ in their native language while a screen appears above their heads with English surtitles. And they do get the evening’s last laugh _ so stay through the curtain calls.

Yet most of the story concerns Millie’s quest for a man, specifically her attempt to snare Trevor Graydon, head of the Sincere Trust Insurance Company. Played with glorious pomposity and a ringing baritone by the square-jawed Marc Kudisch, he provides some of the show’s funniest moments.

Of course, Trevor is not the real man for Millie. Her true love is All-American Jimmy Smith (the boyish Gavin Creel). When a confused Millie starts falling for Jimmy, her mercenary marriage plans fly out the window.

And we haven’t even gotten to Millie’s good friend Miss Dorothy Brown (Angela Christian) and entertainer-turned-socialite Muzzy Van Hossmere, who has undergone a big change from the movie’s free-spirited and flighty Channing. Now she’s a worldly Josephine Baker-type, and Sheryl Lee Ralph milks the sassiness for all its worth in two big numbers, ``Only in New York″ and ``Long As I’m Here With You.″

The lively choreography by Rob Ashford is inventive, most noticeably when he uses Millie’s employment as a stenographer to get new life out of what could have been several predictable tap numbers. Watch out for those flying feet in a spirited hymn to ditching romance called ``Forget About the Boy.″

Despite an overabundance of plot, particularly as the musical heads toward its happy ending, director Michael Mayer keeps things moving at a reasonable pace. ``Gimme, gimme that thing called love″ is Millie’s defiant plea. By the final curtain, she and the audience have found just that.

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