Theatre Review: Thoroughly Modern Millie, Empire Theatre, Liverpool

Image Source: Sheet Music Plus

Written By: Mark Armstrong

Format: Musical
Genre: Comedy
Date: February 20 2017
Location: Empire Theatre, Liverpool

Originally a 1967 movie which hit Broadway in musical form in 2002, Thoroughly Modern Millie is set in 1922 and tells the story of Millie Dillmount (Joanne Clifton), who comes to New York City with a dual goal: find a well-paying and well-respected job (bear in mind that this was a time when women were just starting to receive equal employment opportunities to men), and heading to the big city to find a suitable husband; although she tells her friends that she is going to marry her boss, regardless of who it is or where she finds him. To cover her time in NYC, she checks into the Hotel Priscilla but, unbeknownst to her or anybody else within her social circle, the hotel is run by Mrs Meers (Michelle Collins), who is also running a white slavery ring in Hong Kong, and uses the hotel as a way to find new workers.

Along the way, she manages to achieve her first aim by finding work in Sincere Trust and quickly decides that she wants to marry Trevor Graydon (Graham MacDuff), the manager of the big-business company. She also makes a new friend in Dorothy Brown (Katherine Glover), who checks into Hotel Priscilla and reaches a compromise with Millie for the two to share a room as well as the cost of rent. In the meantime, while Meers plots the next stages of her scheme alongside two shy laundry workers at the hotel (Ching Ho, played by Damian Buhagiar, and Bun Foo, played by Andy Yau), Millie keeps bumping into Jimmy Smith (Sam Barrett) – literally at first, by accidentally tripping him up in the street – who is seemingly an average New Yorker, but who soon makes it clear that he has feelings towards Millie. Things become complicated when the Millie-James romance becomes a love triangle of sorts, as well as the increasing influence of Mrs Meers, and the unexpected twists and turns which sees Trevor enter the romantic picture but, again, choosing another lady over Millie. The various plot strands come together for the conclusion, which wraps everything up in a logical and amusing fashion.

The show is heavily based around the music, with around 65% of the production comprising songs or dance routines. There is also a large portion of comedy, which starts a bit slow at first but gradually builds up; certainly, from a comedic perspective, the second half is superior to the first section. Going back to the music, the most notable numbers are Not For The Life Of Me, The Nuttycracker Suite, The Speed Test and, of course, Thoroughly Modern Millie. There’s also a very unique version of Mammy as it is performed in Chinese, with the assistance of (occasionally hard-to-read) subtitles on a screen above the stage. The best vocal performance comes from Muzzy Van Hossmere (Jenny Fitzpatrick), who we don’t see often during the show, but who nevertheless shines with a quite brilliant rendition of Only In New York towards the end of the first half.

It is Joanne Clifton as Millie Dillmount, though, who is the star of the show, as she carries the singing, dancing, acting and comedy throughout the entire thing, occasionally all during the same scene, and does so while very effectively playing the role of a likeable yet naive American girl from the early 20th century, a reflection of society at the time. The best compliment you can give someone for a theatre show is that they are totally believable in their leading role, and Joanne definitely achieves this as Millie. It’s a show which is very much dependant on the performance of its main character, so it’s reassuring that Joanne can pull it off, almost effortlessly at times. A close second is Graham MacDuff as Trevor Graydon, whose role in the first half is minor at best, but he comes alive in the second half with some great comic moments, particularly when he appears to have drunk himself senseless during an aborted date. Michelle Collins is the most recognisable member of the cast as Mrs Meers but, partly due to the nature of her character, it was hard to understand her lines at times, and on a slightly related subject, until the final quarter of the show, it was hard to see how her storyline truly meshed with the main plotlines involving Millie and co.

In other notes: the scenery was very good, from the realistic Sincere Trust office backdrop to the authentic room corridors in Hotel Priscilla to the semi-circular elevator within the hotel. The costumes were fine too, again mirroring American life during that time. I liked the subtle techniques used throughout the show, such as the simple yet very effective colourful lighting which adorned the curtains in purple and blue before the two halves commenced, as well as the quick photograph flashes from one of the spotlights during a police mug shot line-up scene (which delivered some nice physical comedy too). On the downside, the show ran a bit long (coming close to 2 3/4 hours), and the opening instrumentals for each half were also a bit overly long, with audience members ending up talking over them with the assumption that the show hadn’t really started yet.

There’s a true American feel to this show, which depending on your tastes may be a positive or a negative. Even though it’s set in the States, and many years ago at that, one can tell that the musical numbers, the dialogue and the story as a whole are written from an American perspective, rather than, say, a British person trying to step into an American’s shoes. There are times when the humour misfires somewhat, or when the songs don’t seem suited to this particular target audience. As stated, though, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing; if you are into the all-singing, all-dancing shows that epitomise American culture, this will actually be a positive, but if you’re more used to the British way, so to speak, even if that means a British take on an American-based story, you may find that there are scenes which are of little interest to you.

Judging it on the whole, though, I would recommend Thoroughly Modern Millie. There are plenty of stand-out moments to be found, from some strong musical numbers to some very amusing physical comedy, and there are a number of high-quality performances from the likes of Joanne Clifton and Graham MacDuff. The tone as a whole is light-hearted, ensuring that you can just sit back and enjoy the show, as well as the occasional acts of madness by certain characters. Again, it’s a show that I feel attracts a certain type of audience or, more to the point, may not be suited to those with particular tastes when it comes to theatre. Assuming that you’ll come into this with an open mind and a willingness to absorb whatever transpires on stage, though, you’ll enjoy it. And of course, if you’ve ever seen the film or even the original musical incarnation, you’ll have a really good time watching this latest version.

Overall Rating: 8/10 – Very Good