Thoroughly Modern Millie, Shaftesbury Theatre

As a new West End musical, Thoroughly Modern Millie has already quite a reputation to keep to. Descended from a multi-Oscar winning movie and a winner of 6 Tony Awards on Broadway, Amanda Holden plays Millie, a young girl who comes from Kansas to New York City in the Roaring Twenties.

Not content with working her way up the career ladder, she resolves to be utterly modern in her approach – and marry a millionaire, even if she doesn’t love him. Of course, as is the way with these things, nothing quite goes to plan, but everything sorts itself before the final curtain.

As with all musicals of this type, the plot is paper-thin, serving only to act as a line upon which the big musical numbers are hung. And it’s these numbers which are the show’s biggest joys, and it biggest failings. For the Broadway show, Dick Scanlan and Jeanine Tesori created several new songs, supplementing them with others appropriated from various sources. Among the latter collection are the film’s unforgettable theme song, written by James van Heusen and the incomparable Sammy Cahn, a balletic speakeasy sequence with a jazzy riff on Tchaikovsky, and a lovably demented version of the Al Jolson classic “Mammy” in surtitled Cantonese.

There’s also a wonderful scene as Millie tries out for the job as a stenographer, as Graydon (played with the right degree of pompous charm by Craig Urbani) dictates at faster and faster speeds. If it doesn’t quite sound like it fits in with the rest of the score, it’s little wonder – it’s adapted from a Gilbert & Sullivan piece, with all the tongue-twisting literary wordplay one would expect.

Against such a collection of great numbers, the original songs suffer greatly. They’re not bad, just not as great. Cameo appearances in a party scene by George and Ira Gershwin, brought in for one of the weakest jokes in the script, merely serve to highlight the deficiencies of Scanlan and Tesori’s work. This doesn’t stop a fine cast giving them their all – with Sheila Ferguson as the sultry Muzzy van Hossmere and Maureen Lipman (playing the landlady-cum-slave trader Mrs Meers with the most bizarre Chinese accent since Peter Ustinov’s Charlie Chan) particularly deserving of praise.

It’s Holden’s performance that glues the show together. When allowed to express its full range, her voice is simply breathtaking. Combined with the killer combination of virtue and vixen, as well as an adept display of comic timing, one can hardly fault her casting. The only downside is that, in some of the more complex dance routines, she did look as though she was concentrating on getting her moves spot-on to the detriment of her character.

Hopefully that can be put down to first week nerves, for once noticed, it’s almost impossible to appreciate the breathtaking precision of the relaxed, happy dancers because all you can notice is a rictus grin on the leading actress. An unimaginative set (save for the hotel elevator driven by the power of tap-dance) serves as a backdrop to some glorious costumes and some finer acting. As the characters are propelled to their happily predictable endings (apart from one, ever-so-slightly-gay, coupling), you won’t feel overly moved, but you will feel happy – and wanting to insert the term “Bo do-de oh” into everyday conversation just to see if anyone notices.

• Originally published by UK

Author: Scott Matthewman

Formerly Online Editor and Digital Project Manager for The Stage, creator of the award-winning The Gay Vote politics blog, now a full-time software developer specialising in Ruby, Objective-C and Swift, as well as a part-time critic for Musical Theatre Review, The Reviews Hub and others.