Being of a certain age, I can remember when people went to Broadway musicals to be entertained. This notion has long been out of fashion, but it started to make a comeback last year with that show about the swishy director playing Hitler. "Thoroughly Modern Millie," while not on that level, continues the trend. It has a brightness, wit and high spirits that compensate for the artificiality inherent in the 1967 movie upon which it is based. Hardly an inviolable work of art, the tale of a girl who comes to New York to marry a rich boss traded, in part, on the public's ambivalence about what was then called "women's lib."
The frivolity with which "Millie" treated the issue of what roles women could play was a rebuff to the unrelenting humorlessness of early feminism. The movie also traded on its stars - Julie Andrews, Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Channing and Beatrice Lillie - all in their prime. (Lillie's, of course, lasted 40 years.) The Broadway version has no stars, just loads of talented performers - especially newcomer Sutton Foster, who has the pert look, the silver voice and the dazzling legwork to make an extraordinarily winning Millie. The adaptation is actually far less labored than the original. The story is the same. Millie arrives in New York during the flapper era and checks into a hotel for single women run by a fearsome Chinese woman, Mrs. Meers, who determines which girls have no family or friends to check up on them, renders them unconscious and sells them into white slavery. The musical's chief asset is Harriet Harris, who plays Mrs. Meers brilliantly. The book, which Richard Scanlan adapted from the screenplay, has deftly avoided political incorrectness by making Mrs. Meers a former actress. This allows Harris, who brought unexpected humanity to "The Man Who Came to Dinner" a couple of years ago, to be broad without charges of racial stereotyping. She plays it to the hilt. Similarly, her two Chinese henchmen, played so innocently and earnestly by Ken Leung and Francis Jue, are extremely endearing. Their dizzy songs in Chinese are among the most hilarious moments in the show. As the young man in pursuit of Millie, Gavin Creel could not be better. He dances and sings with just the right light touch and charm. Sheryl Lee Ralph brings showbiz muscle to the role of the chorus girl who struck it rich. Marc Kudisch is wonderfully debonair as Millie's vain boss. The score uses the original title song by James Van Heusen and Sammy Fain, a tune from "The Mikado" with clever new lyrics, and other standards as well as many original songs by Scanlan and Jeanine Tesori, whose 1997 "Violet" was so affecting. Of the new songs, the best is "Gimme Gimme," which Foster sings with irresistible power. The score, orchestrated with period sizzle, is conducted with panache by Michael Rafter. David Gallo's sets pay homage to the lyrical portrayal of New York in the work of artist Joseph Stella (Frank's dad). Martin Pakledinaz' costumes, especially Harris' extravagant outfits, have great flair. Michael Mayer's direction reins in the camp. Rob Ashford's choreography is lively and energizing. If you don't have a silly streak, you'd better steer clear. But if you're tough enough to savor fluff, "Millie" is absolutely delightful.
When you come out of a musical humming the same song you hummed when you went in, unless the show's a revival, it's probably in trouble.
Consider "Thoroughly Modern Millie," which opened at the Marquis Theatre last night. While some Broadway musicals seem genuinely created, most appear to be fabricated.
"Millie" isn't all that badly fabricated, but it's a collage of bits and pieces coming in from everywhere and ending up nowhere.
The biggest piece is the 1967 movie of the same name, and the biggest bit is that old, defiantly hummable hit, also of the same name, with music by Jimmy Van Heusen and lyrics by Sammy Cahn.
The rest of the show should be so lucky. It isn't.
Like the movie, which starred Julie Andrews, Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Channing and Beatrice Lillie, it's set in the New York gin-swilling jazz age of the '20s, where Millie arrives, straight from the sticks, determined to marry rich.
She starts off in a seedy hotel run by a comically sinister, seemingly Chinese lady with lucrative contacts with the Asian white-slave market and a preference for orphaned tenants without friends or relatives.
Millie does marry rich, but not in quite the way she expected. And the white-slave traffic is eventually foiled.
The original screenplay had a daffy, snazzy charm that is sadly diluted by the musical's book, attributed to the late Richard Morris (who wrote the screenplay) and the musical's prime mover, Dick Scanlan, who's also responsible for the often witty and always deft lyrics.
Most of the show's music, newly composed by the usually excellent Jeanine Tesori, falls badly short in period zest and spirit.
She's indeed helped by Scanlan's nimble lyrics, although perhaps even these are at their best in "The Speed Test," which puts new words into a Gilbert & Sullivan patter song.
Everything might have cohered together better had director Michael Mayer provided a stronger hand in the show's shaping and execution.
The original movie was expressly designed as a vehicle for a huge star: the irrepressibly sweet Andrews, the woman who gave sweetness back its good name.
Newcomer Sutton Foster's own star turn as Millie is perfectly charming, but as a star she doesn't twinkle, glitter or light up Broadway like a Christmas tree defying a July noon. But she has a good voice and is cutely agreeable.
Unfortunately, none of the cast - with the exception of Marc Kudisch, as Millie's square boss at whom her marital ambitions are misdirected - seem capable of the heavy lifting any Broadway musical requires. As a result, Kudisch steals a show never very carefully guarded.
The choreography by Rob Ashford seems chiefly variations on the Charleston, seemingly in various pastiche homages to Bob Fosse and Susan Stroman, while the fine costumes by Martin Pakledinaz, stylish as they are, sometimes miss that cloche-hatted '20s look.
Sadly, the almost abstract but cramping scenery by the inventive David Gallo looks as though it were intended for a much smaller stage than the large Marquis.
But gosh, that damnably insistent title tune! I'm still humming it as I write. Luckily, at least for the moment, we can always hear it on the radio commercials.
It is tempting to imagine the inspirational advice taped to the dressing room mirrors of the Marquis Theater, where ''Thoroughly Modern Millie'' opened last night -- those encouraging little mantras that help performers give their all.
The advice would probably be written in crayon, with the i's, perhaps, dotted with smiley faces. And the words of wisdom might include something like the following: Why bother to smile unless you show all your teeth? When you land a punch line, jump on it with two feet. Cute is not a dirty word. Dance as if the jobs of multitudes depended on it: they do.
Hard sell doesn't begin to describe ''Thoroughly Modern Millie,'' adapted from the 1967 movie musical of the same title. Watching this aggressively eager show is like being stampeded by circus ponies. It's all whinnying and clomping and brightly decorated bouncing heads, and it never lets up for a second. You'll leave either grinning like an idiot or with a migraine the size of Alaska.
''Thoroughly Modern Millie,'' which is about being young and innocent in the jazz age, is indeed a thoroughly modern production by the creatively bankrupt standards of the current Broadway season. No, it is not yet another revival of a revival. Instead, like ''The Graduate'' and ''Sweet Smell of Success,'' it looks to Hollywood's not-so-distant past with Vaseline-covered glasses.
One is relieved to say that unlike those other two shows, ''Millie'' does not fall disastrously short of the standards of the film on which it is based. But that's not saying a lot, since the movie was mostly a mess.
Actually, the translation of ''Millie'' from film to stage charts a fascinating cultural trajectory. ''Millie,'' the movie, was one of the first films to try to replicate the appeal of the period pastiche musicals that were developing cult followings in London and New York, arch but friendly shows like ''The Boyfriend'' and ''Dames at Sea.'' Camp, as helpfully defined for the world by Susan Sontag, was suddenly deemed fit for mass consumption.
Ross Hunter, the producer who made sex safe with movies like ''Pillow Talk,'' brought his own imprimatur to this brave new genre with ''Millie.'' He even enlisted the clout of the original British star of ''The Boyfriend,'' Julie Andrews, who had since become the wholesome queen of the American box office. The cast, directed by George Roy Hill, also featured the extravagant eccentricites of Beatrice Lillie and Carol Channing, as well as a dewy Mary Tyler Moore.
The result was a numbing, bloated film that Pauline Kael accurately described as ''desperately with-it.'' Despite the authenticating presence of Lillie (who became an international star in the 1920's) and some classic vintage songs like ''Baby Face,'' ''Millie'' never seemed to grasp the style it was sending up. It was spoof without a clue, an automatic recipe for disaster.
The creators of the stage version of ''Millie'' aren't really trying to summon or satirize the wild and crazy salad days of Prohibition, though they have included a speak-easy sequence. The movie might be described as failed camp. The theatrical incarnation -- as directed by Michael Mayer, from a book by Richard Morris and Dick Scanlan with new music by Jeanine Tesori -- is something different. It's post-camp, and it exults in its cluelessness.
For this ''Millie'' has shed the barbs of irony for a fuzzy high-spiritedness. Period costumes, settings and music become nothing more than the festive adornments of a costume party. The jokes are deliberately hoary; the presentation is breathless and the music a giddy mishmash of references to and appropriations from Al Jolson to Gilbert and Sullivan, Victor Herbert and Tchaikovsky's ''Nutcracker.''
The sum effect may remind you, if you're old enough, of the musical sketch routines on television variety shows of the 1960's -- not on the grade-A level of ''The Carol Burnett Show,'' but of the kind brought in as summer replacement series.
The avid young ensemble members, as they execute Rob Ashford's serviceably peppy choreography, bring to mind those clean-cut performers who dress up like old-time vaudevillians in pavilions in theme parks. If you can think of this style stretched close to three hours without wincing, then ''Millie'' is your show.
The evening's tone of harsh brightness is, one must admit, sustained throughout the production. Do you think that loud pastels are a contradiction in terms? Well, that's exactly the color scheme that the design team is working in here.
David Gallo's Deco-flavored set turns the Manhattan skyline into a candy-store window display. Martin Pakledinaz's flapper costumes seem to be operating on the principle that you should never use pink without combining it with purple. And Donald Holder's lighting keeps layering on more colors like frosting on a kid's birthday cake.
This is New York as Fun City, not Sin City. And you are not meant to worry about fresh-faced young Millie Dillmount (Sutton Foster), who comes to New York from Kansas with the aim of marrying a millionaire, even though she checks into a girls' rooming house run by the sinister Mrs. Meers (Harriet Harris), a former actress with a sideline in white slavery.
The other characters include Trevor Graydon (Marc Kudisch), Millie's boss and the object of her marital designs; Jimmy Smith (Gavin Creel), the wisecracking boy she really loves; the delicately feminine Miss Dorothy Brown (Angela Christian), Millie's best friend; and Muzzy Van Hossmere (Sheryl Lee Ralph), the madcap nightclub singer who looks like Josephine Baker and talks like a home-fried Dear Abby.
It's possible that some theatergoers may object to perceived racism in the portrayal of Mrs. Meers's Chinese assistants, Ching Ho (Ken Leung) and Bun Foo (Francis Jue), who assist her in selling orphans from her boarding house into bondage as prostitutes. But Mr. Morris and Mr. Scanlan have made them virtuous chaps, after all, who have a worthy place in the New York melting pot. And the evening's biggest laughs are garnered by the use of supertitles, ostensibly to translate Chinese into English and vice versa.
That gives you some idea of the crowd-courting spirit of silliness of ''Millie,'' which would be more ingratiating if the show didn't struggle so to put it over. The evening is built less on style than on hard-driving enthusiasm, a trait perfectly embodied by its leading lady, Ms. Foster, who has the pearly toothed, clean-scrubbed glow of the young Marie Osmond and works like a Trojan throughout.
Mr. Creel has a pleasant tenor, though Ms. Tesori's ballads for him are oddly forgettable, blending into memories of other, similar tunes. The same can be said of the songs for Ms. Ralph (of the original ''Dreamgirls'' cast), who is surprisingly subdued in the Carol Channing role, even in an embarrassing sequence in which she wears blond curls and pretends to be an orphan.
Ms. Harris, an audience favorite, seems to be enjoying her character's impersonation of an Oriental dragon lady. And she demonstrates a genuine, slapdash feel for comic timing, which cannot be said of most of the cast.
It's Mr. Kudisch who is most memorable here, however. As Millie's starchy boss, he manages to send up several generations of stolid, square-jawed leading men. And he is delightful overseeing a patter number set to music by Sir Arthur Sullivan.
What Mr. Kudisch delivers that the rest of the cast does not is a precisely drawn cartoon that actually seems to be taking off from some recognizable satire-worthy prototype. He brings a flicker of wit and a spirited stylishness to a show that is otherwise, at best, only spirited.
The most controversial new show of the Broadway season turns out not to be the big musical about the nasty nightlife columnist, or even the comedy about the man in love with the goat. No, it's "Thoroughly Modern Millie." This seemingly innocuous new tuner, about a sweet young thing trying to make it big, matrimonially speaking, in the big city, has inspired an extraordinary volume of industry tongue-wagging, with opinion ranging from rabidly pro to rabidly con and all points in between.
The debating may continue indefinitely, but the show's fortunes -- matrimonially speaking -- may rest on its ability to overcome some parental disapproval (mixed critical notices) to forge a happy union with popular audiences. In recent years, new Broadway musicals have largely eschewed the old-fashioned pleasures that "Millie" is happy to provide: tapping feet, glitzy sets and costumes, happy-ever-afters and smiles for days. The production serves them up in abundance, with chipper, hard-working professionalism and polish; absent are the soul and spirit that are needed to sprinkle magic dust over the mechanical efficiency and transform the evening into something memorable.
You don't have to look very far to discover the original source of that soullessness: Just rent the bloated 1967 musical on which the show is based. A post-"Mary Poppins" Julie Andrews vehicle that goes to desperate lengths to capitalize on just about every Broadway success of the time, beginning with Andrews' similar flapper-era stage hit "The Boy Friend," it's about as guilty as guilty pleasures get. Where else can you see Mary Poppins singing in Hebrew? Carol Channing shot out of a cannon? Beatrice Lillie speaking fake Chinese? Or indeed, Beatrice Lillie at all? I ask you!
The movie is framed as a tongue-in-cheek spoof of silent pictures, with a Keystone Kops chase finale and the somewhat haphazard insertion of title cards. Much of that pop-eyed attitudinizing has been scraped away by the creators of the stage version, who include book writer and lyricist Dick Scanlan (he shares credit for the book with the movie's late screenwriter, Richard Morris), composer Jeanine Tesori and director Michael Mayer. But what's underneath doesn't exactly feel newly minted: It's a somewhat coy and convoluted romantic farce that, served up in more straightforward musical terms, is on the synthetic and shallow side.
The plot follows the determined efforts of small-town girl Millie Dillmount (Sutton Foster) to make a mercenary match in Roaring '20s Gotham. Her plan is to get a job as a "stenog" and marry the boss, and she finds an eligible candidate in Trevor Graydon (Marc Kudisch), chiseled of cheek and suave of voice. But Mr. Graydon falls for Millie's pal, Miss Dorothy (the retention of this moniker seems a bit odd in the less arch atmosphere of the stage show), a dainty lass from California who hopes to wash away some of her gentility through contact with the lower orders. Millie, in turn, and against her ambitious instincts, is drawn to the slick-talking but secretly sincere gadabout Jimmy Smith (Gavin Creel).
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, or rather at the hotel for young ladies that is home to both Millie and Miss Dorothy, strange doings are afoot. Girls seem to be checking out with disturbing suddenness -- girls who are "all alone in the world," as the proprietress, Mrs. Meers (Harriet Harris), puts it with a bloodthirsty leer. Meanwhile once more, at Gotham's most glamorous supper club, glamorous chanteuse Muzzy Van Hossmere (Sheryl Lee Ralph) dispenses worldly wisdom to the gang -- to whom she is connected in ways too complicated to explain -- between torch songs.
The winding up and unraveling of these various complications more or less sank the movie, which clocks in at a whopping-for-the-era 138 minutes, and they scarcely add a feeling of buoyancy to the stage version, which boasts far more musical numbers (although it retains only two, including the bouncy title tune, from the movie). They also place a major burden on the show's large cast of principals, who must establish character, deliver songs and advance the plot in sometimes brief snippets of stage time.
The performers given the most cartoonish material come off best in this busy context. Kudisch sends himself up delightfully as the plastic matinee idol Trevor Graydon, for example, and he and Angela Christian's Miss D. have a funny operetta-style love duet. Above all there is Harris, who plays Mrs. Meers as a hammy cross between Barbara Stanwyck and Fu Manchu. With a ludicrous faux-Chinese accent excused by a further layer of plot -- she's in fact a thwarted actress who gets into the white slavery racket for revenge -- Harris has a grand old time playing the camp villainess.
Her darkly brassy solo, "They Don't Know," boasts some delicious lyrics by Scanlan: "I almost acted Chekhov, Ibsen, Shaw, Moliere./I almost starred as Peter Pan -- imagine moi midair./I almost tackled Shakespeare, a blushing Juliet/And if the house were big enough, I still could play her yet." She and her Chinese henchmen, necessarily if somewhat heavy-handedly retrieved from un-P.C. stock villainy here, also have a delightfully loopy second-act number that puts to clever use the inspired gimmick of employing supertitles for the boys' Chinese dialogue.
Tesori, best known as the composer of Off Broadway musical "Violet," seems a surprising participant in this gleefully nostalgic concoction (her upcoming Tony Kushner collaboration would seem more likely), but her affection for the musical forms of the era appears genuine, and she and Scanlan have come up with some appealing and astute pastiche items here, including a bluesy paean to making it in the Big Apple that's delivered with smooth relish by Ralph and a snazzily hummable act-two opener for Millie, "Forget About the Boy," that's a real keeper.
But one's affection for "Millie" will likely turn on one's affection for Millie. Foster's pearly whites are significant here: She bares her splendid assortment so insistently, so ingratiatingly, that by the end of the evening you'll either be smiling right back or reaching for sunglasses. The grin is emblematic of the performance, which is hardworking and shiny, but to this viewer came across as heavy and overdetermined -- at times even a bit crass. Foster is a fine singer and a bold comic presence, but she lacks the very qualities -- natural sweetness and effortless charm -- that the show crucially needs from its leading lady. (A confession: Judging by the instant and authentic-feeling standing ovation that greeted her curtain call, I appear to be in the minority on the subject of Foster's appeal.)
In any case, charm is lacking in other aspects of Mayer's production, too. Rob Ashford's choreography is heavy on the insistently flapping hands and feet, low on distinctiveness. David Gallo, usually a brilliant cartoonist, has been asked to work in a more generic Broadway format here, and he delivers subpar designs: '20s New York appears not as a beckoning jewel but more as a maximum-security metropolis. Lighting by Donald Holder comes in all colors of the spectrum, mostly in lurid fluorescents that match the occasional garish brightness of Martin Pakledinaz's all-over-the-place costumes.
The movie's design elements, which employed mostly blacks and whites with just an occasional glint of color, were far more sophisticated and distinctive. Indeed, tedious as it is, the film has a personality of its own -- rather too much, in fact -- whereas the stage version doesn't quite have enough. Landing in a no man's land somewhere between wicked spoof and traditional romantic comedy, it doesn't fully succeed as either.
Coming on the heels of "Sweet Smell of Success," "Millie" gives rise to despairing thoughts about trends in the development of new musicals. Along with source material, Broadway seems to be importing production techniques from Hollywood, assuring that material that's widely regarded as full of promise and style gets developed into artistic mediocrity before finally arriving in the marketplace.