‘Millie’ tap dances her way into your heart
STONEHAM — Director/choreographer Ilyse Robbins has been on quite a roll lately.
Her recent direction of “Marry Me a Little” at the New Repertory Theatre was warmly received, and she is currently choreographing the Lyric Stage’s “On The Town.”
In between, she directed and choreographed Stoneham Theatre’s glorious production of the musical “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” a show brimming with energy and enthusiasm and an ensemble that will tap dance its way into your heart.
“Millie” features a blend of young talent — Ephie Aardema as Millie, Noah Zachary as Jimmie Smith, Stephanie Granade as Miss Dorothy and Andrew Giordano as Trevor Graydon — and old pros such as Robert Saoud and the irrepressible Kathy St. George.
Robbins has always been a nonpareil choreographer, and added director to her resume just a couple of years ago. In a note in the program, Robbins paid tribute to dance captain and ensemble member Kevin Patrick Martin, sharing the credit for the fabulous choreography.
The plot is a convenient coat hanger upon which to hang the terrific production numbers.
It is 1922, and Millie Dilmount (Aardema) has come to New York City from Salina, Kansas in search of a husband. With her bobbed hair and short skirt, she is a “modern,” who may not necessarily marry just for love. Aardema is a dazzling dancer, as she proved in last season’s “42nd Street” at Stoneham, and she is completely in her element here.
She’s in NYC for just minutes when the cruel reality of the city life hits her, and gets some stinging advice from a man she bumps into named Jimmy Smith (Zachary).
Saoud, whose comedic chops are beyond dispute, is all scenery chewing as a malevolent failed actress named Daisy Crumpler, who adopts a perfectly horrific Chinese accent to become “Mrs. Meers,” the proprietor of the Priscilla Hotel, where Millie finds refuge and where would-be actresses without family ties are vanishing at a perfectly horrific rate.
That’s because Mrs. Meers is part of a white slavery ring selling the young women overseas.
Mrs. Meers’ henchmen are two Charlie-Chan type Chinese caricatures named Bun Foo (Nathan Cheng) and Ching Ho (Cheeang Ng), but both actors bring warmth and humor to the roles, including sharp comic timing in the scenes with Saoud and hilariously singing in Chinese as an actor and actress hold the translations on cards at the sides of the stage.
Giordano is a familiar face to local theater-goers, but he isn’t just a pretty face with a lovely voice. As Millie’s lovestruck boss, Trevor Graydon, he aces the complicated comic tune “The Speed Test” and follows that up his rendition of Nelson Eddy to Grenade’s Miss Dorothy, who channels Jeanette McDonald in “Sweet Mystery of Life/Falling in Love With Someone.”
Local favorite St. George is the heiress/nightclub singer Muzzy Van Hossmere, who befriends Millie. The scene between St. George as Muzzy playing a long-in-the-tooth “orphan” to Saoud’s Mrs. Meers is pure comic gold.
Paula Peasley Ninestein’s glorious costumes were at the heart of North Shore Music Theatre‘s “Guys and Dolls“ last season , and here she flawlessly recreates the Roaring 20’s, the flappers and the speakeasy era. Crystal Tiala has created a versatile, lovely art deco set.
Because it doesn’t have an orchestra pit, Stoneham can presents challenges when doing a musical. Jim Rice’s energetic music direction and John Stone’s sound design team up to make “Millie” a most satisfying audio experience.
The score is a pleasant melding of music from the movie with new tunes from Jeanine Tesori and Dick Scanlan. The best numbers: “Not For The Life of Me,” the title song, and the rousing “Forget About the Boy” that gets Act II off to a blazing start.
There’s no dead spots here — usually just a chance to catch your breath before the next dance number takes your breath away. “Millie” will be at the Stoneham Theatre through May 12. If you’re looking for 150 minutes of pure escapism/great entertainment, this is where you want to go.
The Stoneham Theatre’s production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” through May 12. Directed and choreographed by Ilyse Robbins. Book by Richard Morris and Dick Scanlan, based on Morris’s story and screenplay. New music by Jeanine Tesori and Scanlan. Tickets at the Stoneham Theatre box office, by calling 781 279-2200 or on-line at stonehamtheatre.org.