Fort Worth — You know the old saying, “It ain’t braggin’ if you can do it”?
On the opening night of Prism Theatrics’ first show—ever—this brand-new producing group gave its audience a Thoroughly Modern Millie that looked like they’d been doing this for a while: stunningly beautiful sets, a live orchestra rising toward Broadway-pit quality, and a star, Anneliese van der Pol, whose different—but very engaging—take on the role gives this production the big-hearted, spunky heroine it needs to succeed.
As TJ said in an earlier look at Prism Theatrics, “if they can pull it off, what’s not to like?”
There were a few opening-night bobbles: drop-down set pieces swaying in the breeze, a hotel elevator that had to be pushed onstage (at least, it looked like an emergency move), a blown line or two. Easily fixed, all of it—and nothing marred the overall impression of a polished and thoroughly theatrical debut.
Let’s start with the star, a red-headed dynamo who lights up the show. Van der Pol, the last Belle to play on Broadway in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, is best known for her role as sidekick Chelsea in the Disney sitcom That’s So Raven. She’s called Millie “a dream role” and she makes the most of it, playing her as a go-getting live wire of a girl who drops the dewy-eyed “new in town” look about one New York minute after she arrives in the city. Millie’s not really the ingénue type: somehow, you know she’s always been the kind of feet-planted, take-charge girl who ends up running the joint—whether the joint is back home in Kansas, or in the middle of Manhattan. We like Millie: she’s friendly and fun, even in her determination to be a hard-hearted “Modern” who’ll marry the boss for money…and worry about love later.
Van der Pol has a bright, true voice that soars right over the orchestra; you can hear every word she says or sings. She’s spirited and comic in her reactions to the new world swirling around her, especially her distracted love life, divided between a hunky baritone boss, Mr. Graydon (Keith J. Warren), and a wise-cracking tenor charmer named Jimmy Smith (Garen McRoberts), a guy who says he’d choose fun over business any day. Millie starts off very sure of her goals (she quotes sensible, marry-rich advice from Vogue) but winds up in a delightful muddle. It all comes to a head in the song “Gimme”—sung with passion and intelligence by van der Pol, who builds it slowly into a sizzling, straightforward statement of what and who she truly wants.
As the two leading men, Warren and McRoberts tickle the audience with very different styles: Warren as the boss plays an “Arrow collar” guy with romantically retro notions; his lush, operatic baritone underscores his longing for an old-fashioned girl. And as Jimmy, McRoberts’ pure tenor and engaging smile make it easy to understand why Millie overlooks his ostensibly empty wallet.
Millie, along with new friend Miss Dorothy (Elise Youssef, sweet and bouncy), settles down at the Priscilla, a ladies-only hotel run by the sketchy Mrs. Meers (Andrea Enright). Thwarted in her acting career, Meers acts out by dressing as a mysterious Oriental, and takes her revenge (on all these hopeful younger girls?) by running a “white slavery” operation—kidnapping hotel residents who are all alone in the world and shipping them to the proverbial Fate Worse Than Death. She’s helped by a couple of unwilling Chinese henchmen, brothers Ching Ho (Ryan Finley) and Bun Foo (Jackson Perrin), who work because she’s promised to bring their mother from China. Enright has funny moments, despite playing a role even Carol Burnett would have declared “too much.
Millie’s Chinese/white slavery subplot has received some pushback in recent years, particularly when the show is produced at high schools around the country. It’s a problem, but you might argue that the storyline is authentically period: movies and stage plays of the 1920s loved plots in which lovely young women were threatened by evil Orientals. And Millie takes the edge off in some clever ways: supertitles translate the brothers’ Chinese, and let us see them as sympathetic, funny guys trapped in a bad spot. The two roles allow Finley and Perrin to flex some comedy muscles—and give one of them a chance at romance.
Local favorite Sheran Goodspeed Keyton plays society chanteuse Muzzy van Hossmere; her rich, resonant voice lends itself to Muzzy’s cabaret numbers, and she’s a warm and caring mentor to Millie at a difficult moment. And Ashley Smith White is gruff and funny as Miss Flannery, the office head who gives Millie a chance to try out as Mr. Graydon’s secretary. Her frizzy wig (escaped from an Annie run?) and surprising tap skills are a hoot.
Director and choreographer Brandon Mason directs this busy show’s traffic with energy and skill, and gets good work from the young ensemble. His choreography for “The Nutty Cracker Suite,” set in a secret speakeasy (nightclub), manages to be both jazzy and sinuous. This scene was also a showcase for Tristan Raines’ costumes and Zach Blane’s lighting design.
The imaginative set design by New York-based Paul Tate de Poo III, inspired by the Art Deco riches of the historic Will Rogers Auditorium itself, is—to quote the show’s Twenties slang—a peach. His backdrop painting of a New York cityscape of the 1920s—a “rhapsody in blues” homage to early 20th century painters such as Joseph Stella or John Sloan, perhaps?—drew a gasp and murmur when the curtain went up on opening night. A particularly beautiful Art Deco latticework panel dropped down at intervals to fill the stage, a layering device that let the next scene slowly reveal itself as the screen was lifted away.
Music director and conductor Eugene Gwozdz, raised in a legendarily musical Fort Worth family (a note: I sang in one of his father’s girls’ choirs back in the day) looked right at home in the Will Rogers pit—and why not? He’s been there before, notably for a well-remembered stop on the national tour of The Will Rogers Follies in the early 1990s. (Sutton Foster, Millie’s future Broadway star, was in the ensemble of that show.) Gwozdz is music director/arranger for the Duke Ellington Center for the Arts in New York, and has filled that same role for numerous national tours and local venues, including Casa Mañana
The 17-member orchestra of area musicians was as crisp and lively as they come. Using the show’s original orchestrations by Doug Besterman and Ralph Burns—chock-full of unexpected touches and humor—Gwozdz and company nimbly accompanied the singers, almost never overwhelming the voices.
Millie is a kind of double throwback—both to its 1967 source movie (starring Julie Andrews, with a title song from one of Sinatra’s favorite teams, lyricist Sammy Cahn and composer Jimmy Van Heusen) and to the music that made Grandma swoon in the Roaring Twenties. Composer Jeanine Tesori and lyricist Dick Scanlan wrote original songs for the 2002 musical—but combined their work with vintage hits from shows and movies of the ‘20s.
This is a perfect show for a hot summer night—tons of fun, and all of it mercifully indoors. And it’s a promising debut for Prism Theatrics and its young executive producer, Blake Floyd.
Here are the details of Prism’s free-ticket offer:
- For information, call the box office at 1-866-616-3310 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
- Two tickets will be available at the auditorium box office for all teachers, firefighters, law enforcement and military personnel presenting an ID card. Additional tickets may be purchased for a special half-price discount.