Nobody likes the smart kid, always sitting at the front, raising her hand first, dressing impeccably, flawless with a flawless life. We don't like her because she has all the answers, which is to say, we can't relate. This week, the Ordway has given us a smart kid, and her name is Millie. The tour of Thoroughly Modern Millie is the Great White Way's contribution to perfection, a musical with all the glitz, ballads, and happy endings you'd expect when you drop 60 bucks on a ticket.
The story is the same as its 1967 Oscar-winning source: Millie Dillmount arrives in Roaring '20s New York from Hick, Kansas, high on dreams of acting and flapping, desperately striving to be "modern." Determined to take the town by storm, she sets herself up at a hotel, gets a day job, falls in love, and lives happily ever after. Throw in a subplot about kidnapped orphans and some rousing speakeasy numbers, and you should have it made.
However, Millie is too smart for her own good: The show's concerns are gloss, glamour, and nothing else. Even musicals whose main goals are to emote and jerk tears give us moments of understanding, compassion, and excitement. But Millie offers none of these. That the show is sponsored by Olay skin care says all we need to know about how deep the show's beauty is. Millie sits at the head of the class because the show consists of songs and scenes waiting to be decked out by spectacular performances and perfectly timed antics, and there are no missteps.
The staging by Broadway wunderkind Michael Mayer is nothing short of radiant, abounding with door slams and vaudevillian tumbles at which, I confess, I guffawed. The mania of office life is portrayed through massive tap breaks (choreographed by Rob Ashford), on desks, chairs, even typewriters. The book by Richard Morris and Dick Scanlan is littered with vibrant characters and some of the best turns of phrase on the road: "Poor sounds permanent; broke can be fixed." The performances are broad, unfailing, and committed to the point of fanaticism, led by a sensational Darcie Roberts as Millie, who manages to pack Liza Minnelli's impudence, Carol Burnett's slapstick, and Audrey Hepburn's docility into one booming performance. During the happy ending, the would-be flapper learns the difference between being a "modern" and being a "boob." Revivals of Guys and Dolls and remakes of The Great Gatsby have demonstrated that Jazz Age subjects can remain socially relevant and, more importantly, human. To borrow Millie's vocabulary, some Jazz Age subjects are even "modern," while this one, for all its perfection, is the opposite.
Theatre Pro Rata also has some smart kids on the docket this week. Author Howard Zinn is best known for The People's History of the United States and other nonfiction works, but he's also the author of Emma, a bioplay of turn-of-the-century anarchist-activist Emma Goldman. According to director Carin Bratlie's program notes, "We did not choose Emma because it will ever join the canon of great dramatic literature," and she'll get no arguments here. The play bumps along over four decades in Goldman's life, with one speech after another telling us how she came to her unconventional beliefs.
The tone changes abruptly in Act 2, in which Zinn focuses nearly exclusively, and prosaically, on Emma's love life. Zinn is a proper historian, replacing dramatic conflict with facts and figures. Bratlie makes her best pitch for coherence in a claustrophobic staging that evokes the oppression of the times, doing what she can to break the play's naturalistic stranglehold. Zinn lets himself go a few times, conflating distant situations and characters in a couple of inspired instances, but overall the production is hampered by the extreme efficiency of the script. As Goldman, Erin Appel does her best to find a journey, but she gets little help from a half-dozen nearly identical rally speeches. Joseph Papke and Derek Miller give notable performances as fellow agitators, forming full characters the playwright hasn't written. Bratlie notes Goldman's voice is "needed now as much as it was needed in 1917," but it's not Goldman's voice we hear in this play. We hear the voice of a historian, the smart kid in his class, with all the answers and little imagination.
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