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Review: Thoroughly Modern Millie at the Arts Centre Melbourne

By Jenna Schroder

Thoroughly Modern Millie is based on the 1967 Julie Andrews movie musical that follows country girl Millie Dillmount through 1920s New York as she finds work, love and dismantles a ‘white slavery’ ring that is being run out of Chinatown.

The original was problematic in terms of the use of fake Chinese sounding language, the character Mrs. Meers played by a White woman with caricature Asian costuming and the depiction of a minority, the migrant Chinese community, as the bad guys.

It was therefore intriguing to see how this adaptation would tip toe around these aspects of the story. Things have improved; “Oriental #1” and “Oriental #2” are given names, a subplot of their own, speak in Cantonese with subtitles offered and are more empowered throughout the story. Instead of an anonymous Hong Kong brothel it is Mrs Meers, played by Marina Prior, that is pulling the strings on this scheme.

Mrs Meers purposefully disguises herself as an Asian woman, complete with a stereotype of an Asian accent, so as to keep doing evil deeds while on the run from police. This information is revealed far too late into the production and creates confusion as to whether the audience is laughing at her, at the other characters stupid inability to see through her guise or with her depiction of an Asian person. Whatever the case, this direction should be the first to see the cutting room floor when the revision of this production is released in 2020.

Its difficult to relax into the show when these moments keep popping up but that doesn’t stop the production from turning out well-oiled vaudevillian entertainment.

The performances from the entire cast are tight, tooth-rottingly sweet and presented with gusto. Marina Prior works the room with her ace comic timing despite the problematic nature of much of her jokes. Queenie van de Zandt, like Carol Channing’s interpretation of Muzzy Van Hossmere, offers the audience a unique and gripping sound when she belts out her tunes.

Director Chris Parker and set designer Christina Smith work together to create scene transitions so smooth they’re unnoticeable, letting the story take centre stage. Peter Casey’s musical direction is similarly seamless and supportive.

The score, however, is a mish-mash of genres that dampens the production’s sense of place and the group numbers feel a bit forced at times though Act Two’s opening was a stand out with its tongue in cheek typing and tapping.

This is a production offers a heartfelt good time to the musical loving crowd but its a mystery as to why this story, a square struggling to fit into a 2019 circle, has been given yet another run.

Photo Credit: Jeff Busby

All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.


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