Everyone seems to universally agree that the plot of Thoroughly Modern Millie is a farcical (highly un-politically correct) one. The story is based on the 1967 film of the same name; Millie, a country girl from Kansas, comes to New York, looking for a modern, love-free, money-filled marriage. The villain comes in the form of Mrs Meers, a former actress posing as a Chinese landlord, secretly operating a white-slavery ring. The height of comedy in the 1960s — slightly less so now — and yet, its cult following is mammoth; it won a Tony and is considered a huge Broadway smash.
It all comes down to the cast. ‘Millie’ only works when there’s enough energy to pump it up into a glorious bubble of madcap hijinks, riotous dance numbers and charming young ladies in jazzy dresses. Not enough and it falls flat; its plots holes suddenly overwhelmingly apparent. Now ‘Millie’ is back, and hoping to bring the joy of this whimsical musical back to London; however, this time around it is not as a full-scale West End production but at The Landor, London’s best Fringe theatre. The cast is a group of enthusiastic young things (thoroughly fitting) rather than seasoned musical pros, and there are no fancy flashes or theatrical magic tricks, leaving not much for the cast to hide behind. It’s all on them to carry the show, leaving little room for a so-so production; if the cast isn’t 100% high energy, all is lost.
Luckily for The Landor’s production of Thoroughly Modern Millie, they’re blessed with a cast that is energy personified. Most of the show’s major highlights are when the ensemble comes together in the impeccably choreographed musical numbers, all fancy footwork and swelling voices. At full throttle, the all-dancing, all-singing cast electrifies the small theatre and does what the cast of Millie needs to do: suspend reality with a hell of a Charleston routine. This is where the Fringe element truly succeeds — no traditional Broadway show could seat you so effectively at the heart of a musical theatre maelstrom. Up-close, the flaws are more apparent, but the intimacy of the theatre also hurls you closer to the action, making it all the easier to get swept up in the moment and forget them.
The individual performances too, are solid, well-rounded ones. The stars of the show, however, are definitely the ladies. Francesca Lara Gordon is a sultry, cynical, hiding-a-heart-of-gold Millie and a fantastic foil to the naive Miss Dorothy. Meanwhile, Sarah Marie Maxwell, playing the aforementioned Miss Dorothy, is a delight of pastiche innocence. Gordon’s vocals are rich and full, while Maxwell’s top notes are astounding. Where Gordon perhaps isn’t quite over the top enough, Maxwell makes up for it with her hyperbolically perky performances. Between them, they have the most chemistry in the entire show — and frankly, steal the whole thing.
The supporting ladies, too, are on top of their game, with Christina Meehan providing a belly laugh-worthy performance as Miss Flannery, and Steph Parry managing to deliver an honestly funny performance in the now very-outdated part of Mrs Meers. No mean feat. In essence, Thoroughly Modern Millie has been and always will be a thoroughly silly show. It’s all pizzazz and sparkle, with very little underneath, but sometimes a little pizzazz is all you need for an excellent night. And as ‘Millie’s’ new, young cast proves, a lot of pizzazz can cover up any number of sins for a toe-tappingly good night.
Thoroughly Modern Millie is on from August 18 to September 13, 2015.
Landor Theatre, 70 Landor Road, London, UK, +44 20 7737 7276