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Theater review: ‘Millie’ taps energy of ’20s

Sun., Sept. 25, 2011

Most people wouldn’t employ the word “frothy” in casual conversation, but I can’t think of any other word to describe “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”

Except possibly “fizzy.” This is a show with all the giddy effervescence – and lightweight thrills – of bootleg Roaring ’20s champagne.

This show is simultaneously an homage to and sendup of those corny ’20s musicals in which the gals are spunky, the guys are tough-but-goodhearted and everyone gets rich by curtain time.

“Thoroughly Modern Millie” should not be mistaken for a Broadway classic. It dates only from 2002, although the (quite different) movie dates from 1967. The material – the musical score and the dialogue – is forgettable, yet it is, in many ways, a terrific vehicle for showing off talent.

The Spokane Civic Theatre’s version has a fine, charismatic performance at its core, Ashley D’Lyn Cooper as Millie Dillmount.

Cooper is a long, slim “It Girl,” who shows off a red-bobbed coif and a slinky flapper dress exceptionally well. She belts out her songs with energy and emotion, yet what I liked best was her excellent comic timing, honed no doubt with help from co-directors Kathie Doyle-Lipe and Greg Pschirrer. She looks like a young Shirley MacLaine but could deliver a deadpan punch line like Carol Burnett.

And Cooper moves exceptionally well. She shines in her many tap and dance numbers, yet she’s even better in her comic moments, most memorably when she tries to strike a seductive pose at her stenographer’s desk and ends up getting stuck underneath. She pulls off even her awkward-comical moments with grace.

Speaking of tap-dancing, this show is particularly tap-happy. There are people tapping in elevators, tapping on window ledges, and most memorably, tapping while sitting down at typewriter desks at the Sincere Trust Insurance Co. Doyle-Lipe and Pschirrer, who are also the co-choreographers, turn this and several other numbers into infectious, joyous ensemble pieces.

The ensemble in general is strong, with standout performances from the feisty Jeremy Trigsted as the male love interest, Jimmy Smith, and the powerfully voiced Christina Coty as Muzzy Van Hossmere.

And Doyle-Lipe herself has the star comic role as the Chinese matron/small-time-crook Mrs. Meers. Doyle-Lipe has her usual fun with the physical comedy – it’s worth a ticket just to see her try to climb atop a laundry bin – although her purposely fake Chinese accent is so thick some of the verbal comedy gets lost.

The costumers – Jan Wanless, Jen Birkey and Dee Finan – deserve special accolades. They created an amazing array of ’20s outfits, from Chinese tunics to evening wear. Their art struck me most vividly in a number in which Millie is surrounded by the steno pool. Millie stands out like brilliant scarlet flame in the midst of a charcoal-colored chorus.

The show itself I find more than a little, well, strange. The first act comes off largely like a straight homage to old boy-meets-girl traditions. It’s a little too long and ends on a down note.

The second act, however, starts with the best number of the night, the pugnacious “Forget About the Boy,” featuring the exuberant girls of the steno pool and the hilarious Miss Flannery (played well by Mallory Ware). Then it’s followed by another terrific number, “I’m Falling in Love With Someone,” featuring the talented duo of Mark Pleasant and Alyssa Day as Trevor Graydon and Miss Dorothy Brown.

Then the show veers completely into wink-wink, high-camp territory, including one extended gag in which Trevor Graydon breaks into the song “Sweet Mystery of Life” whenever he sees Dorothy.

There’s also an odd “mystery” subplot about a Chinese white-slavery ring, of which, the least said the better.

I saw this show for the first time in 2007 and, frankly, remembered hardly any of the actual material. I’m sure that part of the show will fade quickly this time as well.

What I’ll remember is the great star turn by Ashley D’Lyn Cooper. A finer flapper would be hard to find.

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