“Modern” wouldn’t be the first word that comes to mind in describing “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”
This is a retro musical, a nod to the golden age of Broadway, complete with tap-dancing, ditzy dames and rousing production numbers. As expertly produced by the Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre, this show pays homage to “42nd Street,” “Hello Dolly!” and “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” to name just a few.
It’s the ideal opener for the CDA Summer Theatre, since it plays right into this professional summer-stock company’s strengths. It shows off the theater’s terrific orchestra (directed by Steven Dahlke), its polished chorus line and its outstanding talent in the lead and supporting roles.
This show boasts an utterly adorable Millie, as played by the multi-talented Krystle Armstrong out of Seattle. We learn in the show’s very first number, “Not for the Life of Me,” that Armstrong can belt out a show tune and sell a number. We soon discover that she’s also a great dancer and talented comic actress with a flair for physical comedy.
On opening night, she fell down beneath a typing desk and performed 15 to 20 seconds of Houdini-like gyrations in an attempt to extricate herself from the contraption. A woman behind me was positively breathless with laughter. Lucille Ball would have approved.
Not that she looks anything like Lucy. Millie is a ‘20s flapper all the way, with a pretty brunette bob and a knack for doing the Charleston. The entire plot (and don’t expect much of one) is about Millie’s determination to shed her Kansas roots and become a “modern” ‘20s kind of Manhattan gal who goes out and gets what she wants.
She wants to marry not for love, but for money, so she decides to get a job as a steno and then marry her boss. Marrying for love, she declares, is old-fashioned. Since this is a musical comedy, you might guess that maybe, just maybe, some charming young man will change her mind.
That young man is the ne’er-do-well Jimmy Smith, played with the requisite charm and talent by Christian Duhamel.
As usual for the CDA Summer Theatre, the supporting roles are exceptionally well cast. What a pleasure it was to see Bobbi Kotula, a ‘90s CDA Summer Theatre stalwart, take time from her Seattle career to come back and steal a number of scenes as the utterly hysterical and shameless Mrs. Meers.
Mrs. Meers runs a boardinghouse for young actresses. She sports an outrageous Chinese accent and tyrannizes the girls with her Chinese hairpins. Kotula had the audience roaring with her big number, “They Don’t Know,” in which it becomes comically clear that Mrs. Meers is not who she seems. She is, in fact, running a white-slavery ring. She kidnaps young actresses and sends them to Hong Kong to a life of shame.
This whole white-slavery subplot comes from the 1967 movie and seems dated and maybe just a little racist. However, authors Richard Morris and Dick Scanlan have taken pains to make it more palatable by showing that Mrs. Meers’ henchmen, Ching Ho and Bun Foo, are acting under duress. It also helps that the show is played as camp – nothing here should be taken even remotely seriously.
The other great supporting performance comes from Kathie Doyle Lipe, who takes the role of the mean, repressed head of the steno pool and turns it into a little masterpiece of comic timing and cartwheeling physical comedy.
Director Tralen Doler and choreographer Ross Cornell do an exemplary job of building the show’s many production numbers, including the title number and “Speed Test,” in which stenos careen around with their desks.
And if this show didn’t have enough tap-dancing already, the elevator at the Princess Hotel won’t move unless people start tap-dancing. Yeah, this is that kind of show.
I’ve been going to the CDA Summer Theatre for almost half of its 40 years now, and the biggest change I’ve seen is the vast improvement in production values. This show, with beautiful geometric backdrops by set designer Michael McGiveney and outstanding costumes by Judith McGiveney, illustrates just how far the theater has come.
It truly is on a par with the best summer-stock companies in America. And this show demonstrates how entertaining a silly, light Broadway show can be when done with professionalism and verve.
“Thoroughly Modern Millie” continues through June 23. Call (800) 4-CDATIX.
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