A Thoroughly Marvelous ‘Millie” Opens at Engeman Theater

Thoroughly Modern Millie
Tessa Grady plays an small town girl who exuberantly embraces the ‘modern’ spirit of 1920s Manhattan in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” at Northport’s Engeman Theater (Photo by Michael DeCristofaro).

Thoroughly Modern Millie—the most highly acclaimed show of 2002, and winner of both Tony and Drama Desk Awards for Best Musical—has opened at Northport’s John W. Engeman Theater.

The theater has pulled out all the stops in its retelling of the madcap escapades of a small town girl who casts aside her provincial background to embrace the “modern” lifestyle of 1920s Manhattan. To truly capture the spirit of the decade that roared, the cast, music, singing, dancing, choreography, lighting, set and costume design have to be exemplary. Engeman’s production delivers on every level. Simply put, Thoroughly Modern Millie is a delight not to be missed.

The era, known alternately as the Roaring Twenties, the Crazy Years (France) and the Golden Years (Germany), was ushered in by unprecedented economic growth and prosperity. In this period of unbridled optimism and risk-taking, dynamic cultural changes took place. Emboldened by the right to vote, women entered the workforce in droves and cast off prim and proper stereotypes. In big cities around the world, people’s zest for life was reflected in music (jazz), dance, architectural styles (art deco) and elaborate, colorful trends in fashion.

As the show opens, Millie Dillmount (Tessa Grady), a starry-eyed ingénue from a “one-light town” in Kansas, has fulfilled her dream of getting to New York City.  She literally makes her transformation from sedate small town girl to a free-spirited “modern” before our eyes. Sporting newly bobbed hair, her stunning yellow outfit sets her apart from the ensemble clothed in light colored, metallic-toned costumes. As Millie sings and dances against a shimmering backdrop depicting the Manhattan skyline, she is the centerpiece of the title number “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” Prepare to be smitten.

Alas, Millie does not remain starry-eyed for long. She is summarily stripped of her purse, hat and even one shoe by a thief. What’s a penniless girl to do?

A passerby, Jimmy Smith (Daniel Plimpton), who has seen the likes of Millie before, warns her to go back home. But he does dish out one piece of handy advice—to seek lodging at Hotel Priscilla, where the owner is known to be lenient to financially strapped young single women seeking fame and fortune in the big city.

Millie’s plan for putting an end to her financial woes is by no means a feminist one. She envisions finding a single, well-to-do boss and marrying him. Love doesn’t have to figure into the equation in this brave new world where reason is supposed to preside over romance. Or does it?

Millie finds what she is looking for in the very business-like Trevor Graydon (Tim Rogan) at the Sincere Trust Insurance Company. As Millie takes her place at the typewriter to show off her prowess, she sets the stage for “The Speed Test,” one of the show’s most engaging and intricately timed musical numbers. The entire ensemble tap-dances as Millie types and tap-dances beneath the desk. Rogan is terrific, and his no-nonsense demeanor is the perfect foil for Grady’s exuberance.

Meanwhile, something clearly unsavory is brewing at Hotel Priscilla, where young boarders are disappearing at an alarming rate. Don’t let the red-and-black kimono worn by the owner, Mrs. Meers, fool you. This woman—who boasts the world’s worst Chinese accent—is really a frustrated actress who is making a bundle selling girls with no family ties into white slavery.  Mrs. Meers, played by Michele Ragusa, is uproariously funny as are her partners-in-crime, brothers Ching Ho (Anthony Chan) and Bun Foo (Carl Hsu).

The recent immigrants are trying to save enough money to bring their mother here from Hong Kong.  I won’t give away the details, but their antics and their unexpected parody (rendered in song, of course) had the audience laughing uncontrollably.

Jimmy and Millie run into each other again, and before they know it, they are quasi-dating yet both remain conflicted. Jimmy reflects on this in his soul-searching solo, “What Do I Need With Love?”

Millie finds an unlikely confidante in stylish socialite and singer Muzzy Van Hossmere (Nicole Powell), whom she meets through Jimmy. Ms. Powell’s extremely impressive voice is showcased in “Only in New York” and “Long As I’m Here With You.”

Jonathan Collins’ sets never fail to astound, and this versatile design pays homage to the Art Deco motif that defined the ‘20s. It’s a masterpiece that was eight months in the making and it shows.

Collins said that the design called for “a steel emerald city.”

“I wanted to make it as detailed and interesting as possible,” he said of the trio of architectural portals that are ornamented with three different silvers and golds and Art Deco’s signature repeating bold geometric shapes.

An unexpected, but charming effect of the metallic finishes is that parts of the set reflect the dancers’ colorful motion, Collins noted.

Cory Pattak uses lighting to accent this set throughout the production, and the results are stunning. I was particularly wowed by the dreamy, surrealistic use of oranges and magentas in the scene in the speakeasy where intoxicated patrons stumble around and appear to dance in slow motion.

Kurt Alger has done a phenomenal job with costume and wig design. The boldly striped suits, delicious jewel-hued fringed and sequined gowns, feather boas and cloches speak  authentically to the period and are utterly fabulous.

Kudos to Drew Humphrey, whose direction is flawless. He also choreographed the dance numbers with Dena DiGiacinto, and their efforts will leave you wanting more.

Wojcik/Seay Casting has outdone itself in assembling one of the most talented troupes ever to appear on the Engeman Stage. Tessa Grady, the star of the show, is a true gem.
As always, the impeccable performance by the band led by James Olmstead (who does double duty as conductor and keyboardist) is indispensable to creating the era’s ambiance.

Thoroughly Modern Millie runs through July 10. Tickets can be purchased at the box office, by calling 631-261-2900 or visiting www.engemantheater.com