Watermill - Thoroughly Modern Millie
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Watermill - Thoroughly Modern Millie

2nd August to 22nd September 2012.

Review from Newbury Theatre.

A jazzy opening number with the full cast shows us that Thoroughly Modern Millie is another Watermill actor-musician production, and it’s a familiar story: small-town girl comes to the big city to make her fortune. It’s New York in 1922, and women’s emancipation is taking off. Millie’s game plan is to get a job and marry the rich boss. The first part she manages, thanks to her shorthand and typing skills, but the second part is more elusive.

Millie gets off to an inauspicious start when she accidentally bumps into Jimmy Smith, and later gets arrested in a speakeasy with him, but we can tell that they’re going to end up together.

Eleanor Brown is a cheerful, optimistic Millie, flying the flag for women’s rights. She stays in a women’s hotel, run by the devious Mrs Meers, whose sideline is selling her clients as white slaves into the Asian prostitution market. Amy Booth-Steel gave a dazzling and very funny performance as Mrs Meers, assisted by her sidekicks Bun Foo (Dexter Galang) and Ching Ho (Benjamin Wong), who at one point gave us a version of Mammy sung in (I think) Cantonese, with English surtitles. Weird!

Millie’s best friend at the hotel is posh Miss Dorothy (Helen Power) who introduces Millie into the celebrity world of Muzzy (Moyo Akande) where she manages to ruin the dress of an unamused Dorothy Parker. Miss Dorothy manages to win Millie’s boss – a lovely comic performance from Paul Matania – leaving the way open for Jimmy (smoothly played by Lee Honey-Jones) to woo her.

The delightful costumes set the play firmly in the twenties, and the map-of-New-York set is simple but effective.

It’s not a very taxing plot, and the songs (apart from a rousing Forget About the Boy) are not the most memorable, but Thoroughly Modern Millie is a well-acted, happy production that will help to keep up your euphoria after the Olympics.

PAUL SHAVE

Review from The Daily Telegraph.

Few musicals are known for the realistic rigour of their storylines, but Thoroughly Modern Millie surely stands out for its stupendous, delicious silliness. Lord, it is silly. Originally a 1967 film vehicle for Julie Andrews, adapted for the stage in 2000, it contains elements that might have been dreamt up on an acid trip: a subplot about the white slave trade, a lift that moves to the command of tap-dancing feet, a speakeasy where people Charleston to a jazzed-up version of The Nutcracker, and a Chinese version of Al Jolson’s Mammy.

Of course Thoroughly Modern Millie is a pastiche, a jollification. Set in 1920s New York, with its wide-eyed heroine a would-be embodiment of the independent “new woman”, it harks back to the flapper era in much the same spirit as the Austin Powers films harked back to the 1960s. And because of its essential detachment — mitigated only somewhat by the love stories at its heart — it is not one of the truly great musicals.

Nevertheless, it has charm to burn, a glorious theme song and — in the stage version — a remarkably witty score by Jeanine Tesori that pays larcenous homage to Gilbert and Sullivan. Most importantly, the show manages to create its own delirious atmosphere: if it is performed well, you will go along with the LSD ride.

And at the Watermill Theatre — a tiny space, but also resplendent with charm — director Caroline Leslie and her 12-strong cast perform near-miracles in generating the quality that a musical needs above all others, the sense of urgent and intoxicating uplift that makes you feel life is a wonderful thing.

The backdrop, a monochrome reproduction of a New York street plan, looks good, but really the set is the actors themselves, most of whom comprise the band that is packed tightly around the stage. Necessity is the mother and all that, and there is no other way in which the Watermill could stage a musical, but it does start to make you feel sorry for the dear old proscenium arch: theatre feels peculiarly alive when the space is made to work in this way.

The cast — mostly young and unknown — are amazingly gifted. Amy Booth-Steel does a hilarious little turn in the Beatrice Lillie role of white-slaver Mrs Meers, while Eleanor Brown as Millie is a find. You can’t take your eyes off her, and in the end that’s the thing that counts.

LAURA THOMPSON

Review from the Newbury Weekly News.

Mad about Millie

Reviewer Caroline Franklin is won over by the new Watermill production

Thoroughly Modern Millie, at The Watermill, Bagnor, until September 22

The glitter showering the stage at the end of this tale of the roaring 20s was not the only thing which sparkled in The Watermill's latest actor/ musician production. In the time of cloche hats and razzmatazz, self-styled 'modern girl' Millie Dill mount (Eleanor Brown) comes to the Big Apple determined to marry for money and the story blazes into life from the moment a lonely sax introduces this exuberant musical.

Not dissuaded by the loss of her bag, scarf - and one shoe - she stays in a hotel managed by the evilly hilarious Mrs Meers (Amy Booth-Steel) who also conducts a white slave business dispatching any orphan who comes to the hotel and then pocketing the cash with the help of employees Bun Foo and Ching Ho, (Dexter Galang and Benjamin Wong). If you've never heard Al Jolson's Mammy sung in Chinese you're in for a treat.

Millie gets a man in her sights for marriage, her boss Trevor (Paul Matania, a dead ringer for Buzz Lightyear) but inevitably he falls for Millie's sweetly naive friend, Miss Dorothy (Helen Power). Never fret, Millie is destined to find love with Jimmy (Lee Honey-Jones) and after a few romantic hiccoughs all works out well for everyone, even Bun Foo.

The 12 actors include the elegant Moyo Akance as nightclub singer Muzzy and while we're talking music, this may be the jazz-age of Gershwin and co, but Gilbert and Sullivan also get a look-in for the frenetically clever typing scene and in contrast to the exhilaratingly fast and furious numbers, comes that old smoothie I'm Falling In Love With Someone from a much earlier musical. Musical supervisor and arranger Paul Herbert has taken the material and used it superbly. If you ever thought TMM only had one memorable song in it, you're about to change your mind.

As always with these eagerly-awaited actor/musician productions, director Caroline Leslie has her cast making the most of every inch of the small stage against a back-drop of a map of New York and its theatres. TMM has not previously been among my favourite musicals, but this captivating, slick, tap-dancing cast converted me. Another Watermill winner.

CAROLINE FRANKLIN

There are reviews in the Oxford Times ("a first-class ensemble production that triumphantly enhances its original script and score"), Marlborough People ("great tunes and some wickedly funny characters make for a great evening out"), The Stage ("Tom Rogers' set design has to be one of the best to date at the Watermill") and WhatsOnStage ("musical arrangements thrill from the first notes of the opening... as talented a group of actor/musicians as I’ve ever seen on this stage... the cast is extraordinary both individually and as an ensemble" - five stars).