Keeper of the Plans

Music Theatre Wichita gets ‘thoroughly modern’ in season opener

Enigmatic New Yorker Jimmy Smith (Kyle McClellan) is intrigued by new arrival Millie Dillmount (Tessa Grady) in “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” June 14-18 at Century II.
Enigmatic New Yorker Jimmy Smith (Kyle McClellan) is intrigued by new arrival Millie Dillmount (Tessa Grady) in “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” June 14-18 at Century II. Courtesy

If you feel like you’ve seen “Thoroughly Modern Millie” at Music Theatre Wichita before, you’re right.

This is the company’s second production of the Tony Award-winning 2002 musical — previously staging it in 2006, one of the first regional productions of the musical.

“Thoroughly Modern Millie,” adapted from the 1967 Julie Andrews film, tells the story of Millie Dillmount, a “modern” 1920s woman who moves from Salina to New York City to marry a wealthy executive. But her plans are disrupted when she befriends Jimmy Smith, a carefree speakeasy regular who eventually steals Millie’s heart. Along the way, there’s plenty of tap dance, swing dance and even a taste of “more seedy, in-the-club dancing,” according to choreographer Mara Newbery Greer.

The show was originally slated to be part of Music Theatre Wichita’s 2016 season, until the company obtained the rights to “Nice Work If You Can Get It.” The musical was then thrust into consideration for 2017 — a twist of fate that proved prescient, given MTW pursued a 2017 theme of musicals adapted from screenplays.

“When we started figuring out we were doing shows based on movies, ‘Millie’ fit right in,” said Wayne Bryan, producing artistic director for Music Theatre Wichita. “It has a modern sensibility with a vintage feel — good for people with short attention spans, because it goes from scene to scene to scene in a way that older, traditional musicals don’t.”

The actress playing Millie, Tessa Grady — a Broadway veteran who is also the daughter of “My Three Sons” actor Don Grady — said the show has “always been one of my number one dream roles.”

This is Grady’s second chance at that dream role, having previously played Millie in a 2016 production at the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport, N.Y.

Coincidentally, Grady was “revving up” to be part of the 2016 MTW season before the Millie role in New York came up.

“I was torn between the two because I love it here so much, but (the New York role) was my dream role for the first time coming into my life,” Grady said.

The New York Times called her Millie performance “charming,” with Broadway World proclaiming she was “expertly leading ... the cast.”

So what’s it like to play your dream role twice in two years?

“The first time around, you get fresh material and you’ve just got to go with instincts and what’s needed for the show,” Grady said. “This time around, it is coming out similarly because it’s how I feel naturally in the role, but I’m finding that the new colors Millie has here in Wichita are more of my colors as Tessa Grady. I’m finding places where my own personality can shine through her, and I feel like that makes her a little more human.”

... I’m finding that the new colors Millie has here in Wichita are more of my colors as Tessa Grady.

Tessa Grady, actress who portrays Millie

Also of particular note, Nedra Dixon is reprising her role as Muzzy in this production. Dixon played the same role in MTW’s 2006 production.

Unlike Grady — who still had Millie’s lines and musical numbers fresh in her head — Dixon said she couldn’t remember much about playing the role in 2006. That created an opportunity to reinvent the character, she said.

“I’m glad I don’t (remember the role from 2006), because I have a whole new look at who Muzzy is and why she is,” Dixon said. “Being 10 years older, I have another sense of myself and how I view the world. Of course that’s going to come through this character as well, and hopefully give her some rich layers.”

The show, despite being released as recently as 2002, required “real thought and finessing” as to how to approach some of the characters, Bryan said.

Mrs. Meers, played here by Karen Robu, is “layers upon layers of offensive,” Bryan said. Her lines and actions, while appropriate to the 1920s, are widely considered racist according to modern-day sensibilities.

“Even though the show is sort of ostensibly a mindless bauble of a show, we’re still dealing with characters they have to play, and things they have to say and do,” Bryan said.

Matt Bogart, who plays Millie’s big-wig corporate boss in the production, said “we do a lot of shows to show us how far we’ve come, and to remind us as a culture why it was wrong.”

“The goal is to make these characters seem more real and relatable, rather than just paper dolls out of a 1920s pop-up book,” Bryan said. “Hopefully everyone comes out more interesting than that.”

Matt Riedl: 316-268-6660, @RiedlMatt

‘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: 7:30 p.m. Wed.-Thu., June 14-15; 8 p.m. Fri., June 16; 2 and 8 p.m. Sat., June 17; and 2 and 7 p.m. Sun., June 18

Tickets: $32-$68 evenings, $30-$62 matinees. Tickets available at www.mtwichita.org, the box office at 225 W. Douglas or by calling 316-265-3107.

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