If “Thoroughly Modern Millie” is any indication of the lineup Music Theatre Wichita has planned for its 2017 season, it’s safe to say audiences are in for a treat.
Music Theatre Wichita, which is revisiting “Millie” for the second time in its history, has a tight production, a spectacle guaranteed to appeal to a wide audience.
Broadway veteran Tessa Grady (“Annie,” “Cinderella,” “Dames at Sea”) nimbly and gleefully leads this cast as Millie Dillmount, a thoroughly modern girl in the big city. It’s clear to see why Grady has said Millie is one of her dream roles, as the character is a natural fit for her voice and personality.
Another highlight: frequent Music Theatre Wichita guest and Broadway veteran Matt Bogart (“Jersey Boys,” “Aida,” “Miss Saigon”) plays his role as Millie’s boss with bombast and machismo, often resulting in big laughs.
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But perhaps the biggest highlight of the show was Kyle McClellan, a recent University of Michigan graduate who plays Jimmy Smith. For Broadway veterans like Grady and Bogart, it’s pretty much expected that they will be good – it’d be more of a story if they weren’t. But for an actor fresh out of college – albeit with two summers of previous Music Theatre Wichita experience and a summer ahead as a member of the resident company – that’s not always guaranteed. MTW’s producing artistic director Wayne Bryan clearly knows what he’s doing. McClellan looked and acted like he belonged among the Broadway talent on stage, and thoroughly impressed me in numbers like “What Do I Need With Love” and “I Turned the Corner.” His future looks bright.
Karen Robu, who played the chandelier-swinging dowager in last summer’s “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” tackles a particularly challenging role in this show. Her character, Mrs. Meers, masquerades as an Asian hotel owner as a front for capturing orphan girls to sell into the sex trade in Asia. And yes, she’s white. She speaks in an affected Chinese accent, dresses in a variety of outlandish costumes – all while bossing around her two henchmen, Bun Foo and Ching Ho.
Despite the role being inherently offensive and stereotypical, Robu is able to pull off the character because of her dedication to the role. She’s not making fun of the Chinese – it comes across more as an elaborate sight gag. She plays the role with all the gusto and fervor of a larger-than-life Disney villain, and comes across as such.
The choreography by first-time MTW choreographer Mara Newbery Greer and assistant Natalie Malotke is joyful – and just plain fun. Through the various tap and swing numbers, the choreographers give this ensemble a chance to shine.
The actors and actresses also are clearly buoyed by a 23-piece orchestra masterfully directed by longtime MTW musical director Thomas W. Douglas. There’s nothing quite like listening to a live orchestra play big-band-style music and watching talented tappers soft-shoe on stage.
There was a noticeable opening-night glitch on Wednesday. In one scene, while Millie, Jimmy and a group of friends gathered in front of a drop-down brick wall set piece, that brick wall swayed from side to side inexplicably for the entire scene – completely distracting me from the dialogue. But that slight opening-night glitch was quickly forgotten, and will likely be quickly rectified.
To put it in simple terms, “Thoroughly Modern Millie” is just a ton of good, clean fun. The actors and actresses seemed to be genuinely enjoying themselves on stage, which to me is an accurate a barometer as any of a show’s success or failure.
By that standard, this show passes with roaring colors.
‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’
What: The first production of Music Theatre Wichita’s 2017 season, “Thoroughly Modern Millie” is a Tony Award-winning musical comedy about love and the social mores of the 1920s.
Where: Century II Concert Hall, 225 W. Douglas
When: 8 p.m. Fri., June 16; 2 and 8 p.m. Sat., June 17; and 2 and 7 p.m. Sun., June 18