Thoroughly Modern Millie

The young musical thespians of Summerstock Austin's Thoroughly Modern Millie are determined to entertain you, and they succeed impeccably

Thoroughly Modern Millie

Mary Moody Northen Theatre, through Aug. 5

Thoroughly Modern Millie, one of Summerstock Austin's two productions this summer, is one of those rare, fortuitous examples of a talented company landing on the perfect vehicle to showcase its unique strengths. Summerstock Austin, a joint program of St. Edward's University and Zilker Theatre Productions, offers a professional experience for gifted high school-age students that effectively appropriates the highly successful St. Edward's model of commingling students and theatrical professionals in productions. Under the guidance of teachers and creative professionals from around the Austin area and with the assistance of St. Edward's students, the resultant collaboration is testament to the beautiful confluence of enthusiasm and experience.

Thoroughly Modern Millie, based on the 1967 film starring Julie Andrews and restaged for Broadway in 2002, is an unapologetic celebration of fluff. A clamorous jazz-age pastiche, it is the story of Millie Dillmount, a young innocent freshly arrived in New York and determined to marry her boss. She falls in love, takes up stenography, visits a speakeasy, and breaks up a white slavery ring. The plot works its way through each convention of the genre with an unremitting disingenuousness, and the story, the characters, and the songs are all vaguely derivative and unimaginative, even for a nostalgia romp.

And yet, this in no ways mars the jaw-dropping effect produced by a chorus of 16 bright-eyed youngsters in lovely, candy-colored period costumes belting a showstopping paean to the big city while Charlestoning their hearts out. That is only the opening scene, and the momentum never pauses from there. In fact, the youthful cast attacks the uninspired script with an exuberance that very nearly inspires awe. With limited props and the barest hint of scenery, the ensemble fairly explodes the Mary Moody Northen Theatre with life -- thanks in great measure to the spectacular choreography by Stacey Huston and Robin Lewis, which includes, technically striking, a ballroom-style love duet that is one of the highlights of the entire production, and, witty and charming, a tap-dancing typing pool complete with moving desks and backflips. The scale of the production is really impressive. For three hours, the large cast, ably directed by Ginger Morris, belt out their songs (any other phrase can't help but do a disservice to their level of commitment) and tear through one Busby Berkeley-style number after another. Michael McKelvey, the musical director, keeps things snappy, giving full voice to the infectious fun of the faux nostalgic score, and draws some great performances from his singers. These young musical thespians are determined to entertain you, and they succeed impeccably. So much vivacity actually looks a little exhausting; no wonder the real Ziegfeld chorines were so eager to hang up their taps when they landed a man. This chorus is not kidding around.

Grace Sarosdy is bright and amusing in the title role and Aaron Moten charming as the ne'er-do-well she falls for. Elizabeth Sikora, playing the sweet society girl, has a lovely voice, and Libby Dees delivers some definite sass as Muzzy Van Hossmere, the chanteuse. Clay Cartland is a real standout in the role of Trevor Graydon, Millie's boss and prospective fiancé. With a great voice and consummate style, he hits upon just where the humor resides in the hackneyed stereotype his character is supposed to represent and confidently wrings from it all the comic possibilities available. Stephanie Denson makes the best of a difficult role, the failed actress and ersatz Chinese dragon lady Mrs. Meers. In a play of very blunted satire that is noticeably bereft of any sense of sly self-awareness, the subplot of the yellow devils and their white slavery ring can be just a little uncomfortable. Even though every effort is made to render the Chinese characters as winsome as possible, by the time they are paraphrasing Al Jolson's famous blackface tune, "Mammy", the play is in deconstructionist waters too convoluted for the willful naivete that sets the rest of the tone.

Summerstock Austin is an admirable endeavor, and the results are strikingly successful -- proof once again that age is no barometer of talent. It deserves support in every respect, and what could be a more enjoyable way to do so than by allowing these kids to knock your socks off in a good-old-fashioned, stars-in-their-eyes, Great White Way, Broadway spectacular?

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Thoroughly Modern Millie, Summerstock Austin, Michael McKelvey, Ginger Morris, Robin Lewis, Stacey Houston, Grace Sarosdy, Aaron Moten

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