Thoroughly Modern Millie, Waterside Theatre, Aylesbury ★★★

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

Based on the 1967 movie devised as a Julie Andrews vehicle, the 2002 Broadway production of Thoroughly Modern Millie, which is revived here, expands upon the original film’s appropriation of 1920s music by grabbing and adapting songs and styles from many other places.

No other musical could claim a speakeasy dance sequence with music adapted from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song transformed into an increasingly demented job interview, and a version of Al Jolson’s Mammy sung in a combination of English, Chinese and Chinglish.

Add to such appropriation a set (based on one by Morgan Large for a previous production) that echoes the art deco curves of the Chrysler building and a plot that attempts to recreate the flapper romantic comedies along the lines of 42nd Streetand The Boy Friend, and you have a musical which never feels wholly original.

Central to the whole show’s premise is Kansas-born Millie, a young woman who comes to New York to seek her fortune in a “thoroughly modern” way – by finding a rich boss and marrying him. In this central role, Joanne Clifton – a relative newcomer to musical theatre but whose dance career came to public attention through her involvement in Strictly Come Dancing – is engaging. Clifton’s dance background certainly helps elevate the dance routines, choreographed with care by director Racky Plews as a Charleston-dominated concoction of dance styles including several moves decades younger than the show’s setting in the Roaring Twenties.

And throughout the dance numbers are the highlight of the show. When the dancing stops, though, matters often grind to a halt. Whole scenes trudge by with all the speed of wading through treacle, comedic lines falling flat. The biggest victim of this is the already troubling “white slave trade” subplot, which relies on yellowface caricature for laughs, although at least the stereotypical character of Mrs Meers (Lucas Rush) is exposed as someone donning a very bad impersonation from the off.

This is a subplot that requires great finesse to be funny rather than offensive, but this production falls short on that front, despite the best efforts of Rush and sidekicks Andy Yau and Damian Buhagiar, who is one of the show’s most impressive dancers. Similarly, Clifton’s attempts at physical comedy often feel overwrought and out of character. Yet in her slower, more controlled moments, Clifton demonstrates acting and skills that show great promise.

Sam Barrett’s Jimmy provides a likeable romantic foil for Clifton, making the most of his underwritten character, while Jenny Fitzpatrick’s socialite Muzzy Van Hossmere is a solid supporting performance. But the most unexpected supporting role comes in the shape of Graham MacDuff’s Trevor Graydon, whose second act fall from efficient office manager to lovesick, drunken louche precipitates a scene of improvised physical comedy that precipitates corpsing from both Clifton and Barrett in such an endearing way that it helps to compensate for the show’s other failings.

Thoroughly Modern Millie is perhaps the least modern musical currently touring the UK. And while the dance numbers and engaging central performances compensate for its failings somewhat, they can’t quite erase the feelings of a musical which is thoroughly dated.