A Thoroughly Brilliant “Millie” from John Cooper

This may sound far-fetched, but the John Cooper School’s recent production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” was much more fun than the Broadway production I saw a couple of seasons ago in New York. I guess the reason is that you expect a certain degree of excellence on Broadway. But when you see a local high school production that has singing, dancing, and costuming the equal of a professional production, it just fills you with wonder as to how such a thing could be accomplished. No doubt there was plenty of hard work involved. I confess I was apprehensive going in, because I knew that the brilliant former drama director at John Cooper, Justin Doran, had moved on to new responsibilities downtown (as an actor with the Alley Theatre, and teaching at a school closer to his home). Not to worry! Cooper’s new director, Joseph DeMonico, has very quickly established he is ready and able to carry on the tradition of theatre excellence at the school. With a book by Richard Morris and Dick Scanlan, and the music of Jeanine Tesori, this glittering production was breathtaking proof of that.

The skilled 10-piece orchestra (conductor, Rae Moses) was wisely placed in front of the stage, but off to one side behind glass baffles that prevented their delightful performance from overwhelming the singing of the performers. And what singing it was, with wonderful full-cast choral ensemble work (music director, Donna Arnold), and astonishing singing from Meredith Tyler as Millie. In numbers like “Not for the Life of Me,” she could easily have been singing on Broadway herself, as she flawlessly carried off this role of a young girl trying to make her way as a secretary in the big city of New York. Similarly, there was outstanding vocal work from Roma Patel as Millie’s friend, Dorothy. Her very pleasing voice showed exceptional skill. They pair marvelously in songs like “How the Other Half Lives.” On the male side of the cast, Zach Ullah was ready for the vocal challenges of the part of Mr. Graydon, the manager of the secretarial pool who has a roving eye for the ladies. Not only was Ullah up to the rapid-fire Gilbert & Sullivan style singing of songs like “The Speed Test,” but he also had the kind of confident comic flair one might recall from recent John Cooper grad, Eric Alba. (Alba, now an NYU drama student in New York, has just formed a new theatre company with friends from the Tisch School of the Arts, and their premiere production will be next month in Manhattan. I plan to attend). The very handsome Ross Davis cuts a fine figure on the stage and pleasantly plays Millie’s love interest, Jimmy. While Davis has not the vocal training or polish of his co-star, he nevertheless produces a very likable characterization, and we are not surprised when he wins Millie over.

Have I mentioned the first-class glamour of the costumes and the dancing? Both were the stunning work of designer/choreographer Elizabeth DeMonico, and would have fit right in on any Broadway stage. The “flapper” outfits gleamed in rich, silver satin (lighting, Al Fajardo). Hair and make-up (designer Caitlin O’Neill) were perfect complements, and the dazzling tap dancing seemed to leave the audience as breathless as the cast. Meanwhile, the lightweight plot has some of the career girls in Manhattan’s Hotel Priscilla suddenly disappearing at the white-slaver hands of conniving concierge, Mrs. Meers, amusingly played by Maggie Hohlfeld. She is aided hilariously by Chinese laundry boys, Ching Ho (T.J.Seefeldt) and his brother, Bun Foo (Harrison Hardin). These guys are droll, comic scene-stealers that could give Abbott & Costello a run for their money. Their rendition of “Mammy,” (sung in Chinese with translations projected above the stage) brought the house down. Another crowd-pleaser was the tap-dancing-while-typing of the girls in the secretarial pool. With perfect uniformity of their fancy footwork and austere dress, this was a perfectly executed, fun-filled, and very first-class number. There were still more dancing delights in the smart, sexy, Speakeasy number featuring Jimmy, Millie, Dorothy and the ensemble. For even more razzle-dazzle, we meet the flashy socialite, Muzzy van Hossmere (Annie Wilson), a part that would have been perfect for Ethel Merman. Muzzy’s elegant gown is a beaded masterpiece of electric blue and silver, complete with white feather boa. Though another who is not a trained vocalist, Miss Wilson brings a great sense of fun to presiding over her penthouse party. While the audio for this scene was not adequate, the fine dancing comes to the rescue. Miss Tyler closes out Act One sweetly, and with plaintive longing, as she delivers a pure and appealing “Jimmy.” She tries to forget him in a fierce delivery of Act Two’s snazzy “Forget About the Boy.” She is joined in this great choreography by the demanding and amusing secretarial supervisor, Miss Flannery (Racheel Brubaker in a whirling tour-de-force of tap). Then Mr. Ullah and Miss Patel have a shining medley of “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life” / “I’m Falling in Love with Someone,” that was worthy of Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald. The Café Society scene must have stolen its costumes from Broadway for Muzzy’s jewels and black velvet gown. And King Midas must have designed the golden glamour of the chorus girls. Wow!

The show, of course, had its inevitable school production moments when students raced the dialogue, a solo seemed shrill or average, and a spotlight missed the faces on stage. But generally, the sound system and microphones seemed more in control than has recently been the case at this Nancy Bock Center for the Performing Arts (sound technician, Troye Dingle). And speaking of control, Miss Tyler’s compelling final solo of “Gimme Gimme” displayed such a solid ability to connect with an audience that I feel sure she is headed for a career in theatre. It was the perfect warm-up for the gleaming cast finale that followed. This show was marvelous!

(The Courier    11.22.06)

About The People's Critic

David Dow Bentley III, writes columns about the performing arts which are featured in newspapers from the East Coast to the Gulf Coast. A member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), The International Theatre Critics Association, and America's oldest theatrical club, The Lambs, he also had long service as the editor of The Lambs' Script magazine. Mr. Bentley may be contacted via e-mail at ThePeoplesCritic3@gmail.com.
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