Can a show with 1920s sensibility based on a 1960s movie resonate enough with 2010s teenagers that they can pull off an enjoyable production? To borrow from the Bard of Avon: That is the question.
Cabot High School’s recent production of Thoroughly Modern Millie proved to be toe-tapping fun from the opening acrobatics through the closing rousing chorus. In between there were plenty of laughs, crowd-pleasing dance numbers and winning performances.
Director/choreographer Ashley Tarvin put the cast through their paces in a production which seldom slowed. That is just as well, because the plot of this musical is pretty slim. In opening it up from the movie, it skimps on character development (and it was already fairly sketchy in the movie). So all that is really left is for the actors to have fun with their moments. One could make the argument that the show’s creative team (Dick Scanlon, Jeanine Tesori and Richard Morris) were trying to evoke the tissue thin plots that actually existed in 1920’s musicals.
Sharing the title role at separate performances were Alison Kaseberg and Jeni Fuller. Each put her own stamp on the character. Kaseberg’s Millie was wide-eyed and ebullient. Fuller’s Millie was tenacious and fearless. Each made these attributes work in conjunction with the other actors. Both were also fine dancers and singers. Both nights, after the “11 O Clock” number “Gimme Gimme” Kaseberg and Fuller each had the audience in the palm of their hand.
As one of the objects of Millie’s affection, Ty Schultz played Jimmy. He captured the “Gee Whiz,” snappiness of the 1920s. Schultz managed to be both sarcastic and engaging at the same time. He also handled the quieter moments with aplomb. Payton Collier portrayed Mr. Trevor Graydon, Millie’s boss. He deftly took hold of the patter song he is given (courtesy of a Gilbert & Sullivan interpolation). He also was an apt partner in a comic pas de deux with Bailey Moses.
Miss Moses portrayed Miss Dorothy Brown, Millie’s best friend. This part is so innocent that it can be hard to play believably. Miss Moses captured Miss Dorothy’s naiveté but also gave her a sense of humanity. She is a very talented dancer and had several opportunities to show off in a variety of dance styles.
Millie and Miss Dorothy stay at the Hotel Priscilla, which is run by Mrs. Meers. Emily Freeman was clearly relishing the opportunity to chew scenery and have a fun time playing that role. That character has some of the best lines in the show, and they were not wasted on Freeman. As her two unwitting henchmen, Madison McGregor and JP Gairhan were bumbling, bickering brothers. They showed agility and great comic timing even without speaking much English. Gairhan won the audience over with a few simple words as his character wooed Miss Dorothy.
Yauni Akins played a wise and talented Josephine Baker-like entertainer. Her character has two of the better songs in the score. Akins owned them as Muzzy Van Hossmere. Both the characters on stage and the audience members enjoyed her performance. Jade Gibbs stole her scenes as a stentorian office supervisor. Her deadpan delivery was priceless. She even garnered laughs as she rolled her desk offstage.
Other actors who shone in their moments in the spotlight included Lexi Cunningham, Charl Young and Lauren Worth as aspiring actresses, Bradey Chambers as Dorothy Parker, Trent Blankenship and Tanner Johnson each in several roles, Katie Foust as a domineering wife and Jane Morgan Balgavy in a curtain call cameo. Sam Owen, Kent Tarvin, Wyatt McMahan, Cash Tarvin and Logan Williams stole a couple of scenes as newsies.
Because the plot is so thin, what ultimately saves a production of Thoroughly Modern Millie is the dance numbers. The big dance numbers were fun for both the performers and the audience. This is primarily a tap show, and Tarvin’s tappers met the challenge. Their enthusiasm was infectious. The girls were showcased in several numbers, mostly set in Millie’s office. The guys however also proved their prowess in a variety of dance styles. Several of them leap-frogging over a standing dancer was particularly memorable — and established that this would be a high energy show. Trying to single out individual dancers would be unfair because undoubtedly some deserving names would be omitted.
Gwen Brooks was techncal director and oversaw the scenic design. The New York City skyline was an Art Deco dream. The set pieces also carried through the period both in design and in color scheme. The costumes, overseen by Tarvin, shimmered and shone as they showcased the excitement of the 1920s.
In this day of pre-recorded music and synthesizers, it is always nice to hear a live orchestra. Chuck Massey led the pit orchestra. This show has a lot of music; he and the musicians kept the show going at a good clip.
This is the first spring musical in Cabot’s newly renovated theatre. Much resources were invested in a new sound system as part of the upgrade. This enhanced the production immensely. Each of the actors could be heard, which is rarely the case in high school productions these days.
The 1920s were a decade of excitement and rebellion. The shackles of the Victorian and Edward eras as well as World War I were left behind. Teenagers similarly are engaged in discovery and their quest to find their own way. This production of Thoroughly Modern Millie harnessed those similarities to present a production which pleased audiences which were literally from 8 to 80. It is difficult to say who had more fun, the cast or the audience.