Thoroughly Modern Millie continues at the Landor Theatre, London until 13 September.
Star rating: three stars ★ ★ ★ ✩ ✩
Of all the wonderful old musicals out there, why pick this clunker of a show for a Fringe revival?
It defies belief that Thoroughly Modern Millie won six Tonys on Broadway, where she ran for 903 performances in 2002-4, and received three Olivier nominations when it came to the Shaftesbury for eight months in 2003-4. Best Musical? What a duff year that must have been!
Opening just two weeks after the infinitely more entertaining Anything Goes, even the undoubted charms of tabloid TV favourite Amanda Holden in the title role and the formidable Maureen Lipman as the evil hotel owner and leader of a white slavery ring to the Orient couldn’t win the public over and the show closed two months early.
The plot, of a small-town girl who comes to New York with the thoroughly modern aim (for 1922 when women were just entering the workforce) of marrying for love rather than money is beyond tiresome and, with its anti-Asian stereotyping, more than a little offensive by today’s PC standards.
For a musical comedy/comic pastiche, the laughs are few and far between. And the three best songs weren’t the ‘new’ ones written by Jeanne Tesori and lyricist Dick Scanlan – he co-wrote the book with Richard Morris, who was responsible for the screenplay for the wet 1967 Julie Andrews movie – but stuff pinched from elsewhere.
The infuriating catchy title tune, which everyone would have been humming all the way home, was penned by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen 35 years earlier, and ‘Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life/Falling in Love With Someone’ was lifted from the 1910 operetta Naughty Marietta.
The evening at the Landor, home to so many lively revivals as well as superb new musicals such as The Clockmaker’s Daughter, began badly with a sizeable delay before an announcement that a projector intended to translate the Cantonese bits wasn’t functioning and we’d have to live without it.
That was the least of the problems. Not even the enthusiasm and vitality of a young cast – five of the six main parts are taken by talented ArtsEd graduates of various vintages – or the brilliant efforts of choreographer Sam Spencer-Lane and costume designer Andrew Riley could rescue director Matthew Iliffe’s musical theatre debut.
Very little blame attaches to the cast. If the thoroughly unfunny role of hotel owner and ex-actress Mrs Meers could defeat the mighty Lipman what chance does the most experienced of the ArtsEd contingent, Steph Parry, an actress with West End credits for Mamma Mia! and Billy Elliot, have?
Francesca Lara Gordon is an attractive if bland Millie and Sarah-Marie Maxwell, fresh from her professional debut in the touring Top Hat, has a fine belt as Miss Dorothy. But the most impressive performance, outside the dancers, comes from Samuel Harris as the eligible-bachelor company boss on whom Millie sets her sights.
This Royal Welsh College graduate looks perfectly in period and his duets with Gordon in ‘The Speed Test’ and Maxwell in ‘Falling in Love With Someone’ are a treat.
But it is in the dazzling dance scenes that the show momentarily takes off and punches above its weight. Every moment Charlie Johnson and Thomas Inge, long-limbed and supremely energetic, are onstage is a joy. It’s just a pity there isn’t more of them.
Johnson, another member of the ArtsEd mafia, plays Dorothy Parker and three other roles in a multi-tasking cast pared down to 12 from a piece originally written for 25.
Ben Stacey, Chipo Kureya, Christine Meehan, George Hinson, Anthony Starr and Alex Codd make up the rest of a fresh-faced team that throw everything they can into the mix.
No complaints there or with the five-strong band under MD Chris Guard. But, as they say in racing, you can’t come without the horse. And Millie has always been a filly who is more selling-plater than classic winner.
Maybe that’s why it’’s 11 years since we last saw it in London. To be blunt, it is a two-star show (and barely that) which hasn’t improved with age. Only the wholehearted efforts of cast and creatives drag a third star out of this underwhelmed critic.