“Give me the meat without the gravy”
Based on a film from 1967, the musical of comedy pastiche Thoroughly Modern Millie actually only dates back to 2000, though a substantial deal of its humour harks back to an uncomfortably old-school era. Set in 1920s New York, Millie Dillmount arrives determined to marry for money instead of love but finds herself mixed up in a white slavery ring run by a faded actress pretending to be a Chinese woman (as you do). The Landor has a sterling record in successfully mounting small-scale productions of big musicals but Matthew Iliffe’s production doesn’t always hit the mark.
Full of fresh young faces, the company brims with youthful vigour and there’s lots of potential on show. Sarah-Marie Maxwell displays wonderful comic timing, Samuel Harris could do with a little more volume but his patter song is good and in a number of small roles, Charlie Johnson stands out in the ensemble. But even with ethics aside, Steph Parry can’t quite carry off the jaded persona of Mrs Meers, nor Chipo Kureya invest bon vivant Muzzy van Hosmere with enough personality to really fill the room.
The mis-casting extends to the Chinese brothers unwillingly employed as henchmen too. It’s one thing to try to take aim at stereotypes by putting a character into yellow-face but another altogether to flirt dangerously with the real thing – at the very least, the pair struggle to convince as brothers. The writing is largely at fault – the inexplicable decision to have them speaking into Cantonese but singing in Mandarin and Mrs Meers’ mangled accent for starters, too lazily reaching for easy laughs – but there’s a real naïveté at work here with this production, especially with the Act for Change movement gathering momentum and the controversy rumbling around Trevor Nunn’s all-white ensemble for his forthcoming Wars of the Roses.
The staging lacks inspiration too. Iliffe recognises the strongest card in his hand as Sam Spencer Lane’s period-perfect choreography but consequently relies a little too hard on it. There’s undoubted pleasure in watching the full company dance away in such an intimate space but too many of the solo numbers are left feeling lacklustre, either with nothing else on the stage or overwhelmed by the accompanying dancers as in the case of Muzzy’s delectable boys in ‘Long as I’m Here with You’. The score is a real hodge-podge though, original songs from Jeanine Tesori and Dick Scanlan mixed with pre-existing works and never really cohering into a satisfying whole.
And as flimsy as it is, the story really doesn’t bear much scrutiny. Francesca Lara Gordon makes for a lead of some vibrancy but just a touch too much seriousness. Millie needs more flamboyancy and fun to get away without just being a grubby gold-digger and indeed the whole production needs to remember the same. It is only midway through the second act that a knowing wink is introduced which releases some of the pressure and becomes more enjoyable but it is a bit of a culturally insensitive slog to get there with a show that rightfully has been collecting dust.