Monday, May 15, 2017

Two Musical Revivals: Thoroughly Modern Millie and The Golden Apple

Dan DeLuca and Taylor Quick in Goodspeed Opera House's Thoroughly Modern Millie. (Photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Thoroughly Modern Millie opened on Broadway in 2002 and played for a little over two years, winning the Tony Award for Best Musical. I gave the original production a pass, though, because I had such unpleasant memories of its source, the 1967 movie in which Julie Andrews sang “The Jewish Wedding Song” and Carol Channing, with that corn-husk contralto, performed “Jazz Baby.” (It’s amazing those two numbers haven’t come back to me in nightmares.) Many friends have told me since that the stage version is charming, and the revival at the
Goodspeed Opera House, directed and choreographed by Denis Jones, bears them out. Jones staged the dance numbers for the 2015 Encores! version of Lerner and Loewe’s
Paint Your Wagon, which I enjoyed very much, and he’s just been nominated for a Tony Award for choreographing
Holiday Inn, which
began at the Goodspeed. Here his work, built around twenties dance steps (plenty of Charleston and tap), is clever and energetic. A tap executed by secretaries at a trust company seated at their typewriters makes you grin, and a pas de deux on a window ledge (“I Turned the Corner”) – which brings to mind a number from the short-lived but fondly remembered
Never Gonna Dance – is the rare novelty dance turn that really soars.

The book by Richard Morris (adapting his screenplay) and Dick Scanlan spices up a standard romantic musical comedy – about two people who seem like an ideal match but keep being pulled apart – with silly intrigue about the selling of young orphaned women into white slavery. Millie Dumont (played on Broadway by Sutton Foster and at the Goodspeed by the affable Taylor Quick, who has strong pipes and good moves) comes to Manhattan from Salinas, Kansas, determined to be modern as all get-out and to land a rich husband. The guy she sets her sights on is her boss, Trevor Graydon (Edward Watts), a square who is much less interested in her looks and sex appeal than he is in her stenographic efficiency. (He calls her John for some reason.) The man Millie should be going after is Jimmy (Dan DeLuca, giving a skillful hard-boiled comic performance), a gallivanting jack of all trades who takes her and her housemates to a speakeasy one night and with whom they land in jail when the joint is raided. Millie lives in a cheap boarding house for young women run by an ex-vaudevillian named Mrs. Meers (Loretta Ables Sayre) who’s been kidnapping the orphans among them, with the help of a pair of Chinese √©migr√© brothers (James Seola and Christopher Shin) she’s got under her thumb, and sending them to Hong Kong to toil in brothels. Her latest target is Miss Dorothy Brown (Samantha Sturm), but Millie has just befriended her, and Millie is a formidable foe.

Act two is somewhat loaded down by plot, but second-act problems are endemic in American musicals; plenty of classic musicals – Damn Yankees and Bye Bye Birdie, to name two – have had to negotiate them. I wouldn’t go so far as to call Millie a classic, but it’s quite good. The big surprise is Jeanine Tesori’s music. (Scanlan wrote the lyrics.) The melodic lines in Tesori’s songs for Caroline, or Change and Fun Home are so random that I can’t make sense out of them. The trick seems to be not to leave her to her own devices: modeling her score for Violet on country-western norms, she came up with some pretty tunes, and the music for Millie, which is inspired by the light-romantic twenties musicals of Kern, Gershwin, Vincent Youmans and others (and probably also by The Boy Friend by the British songwriter Sandy Wilson, which parodies them), is nifty. The one song I don’t care for isn’t by Tesori and Scanlan: “Jimmy,” which Jay Thompson wrote for Julie Andrews to sing in the movie. The catchy title song from the film, by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn, has also been folded into the score, along with “My Mammy,” the Al Jolson standard, and two ballads from Victor Herbert’s Naughty Marietta, “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life” and “I’m Falling in Love with Someone.” These three interpolations are befuddling, especially the two Herbert songs, which aren’t even from the right period. (Naughty Marietta was produced in 1910.)

The book writers have finessed the Chinese brothers by turning them into actual characters and making them sympathetic; their dialogue is supertitled, and one of them, Ching Ho (Seol), becomes a romantic interest for Miss Dorothy. It’s unclear why Loretta Ables Sayre, a part-Asian singer who was Bloody Mary in the Lincoln Center revival of South Pacific, is playing a character who’s written as a white woman pretending to be Chinese. Sayre is badly miscast – not because she’s Asian (that’s merely confusing) but because she’s brassy and overstated rather than sly and high-comic. (The role was written for Beatrice Lillie, and Harriet Harris played it on Broadway.) She’s the only member of the cast who doesn’t seem right. Ramona Keller, as the heiress Muzzy Van Hossmere – the Channing part – has a bona fide jazz presence, and though she isn’t great with dialogue she performs her two numbers, one in each act, elegantly. The ensemble sounds lovely under Michael O’Flaherty’s musical direction and dances with style. The three designers – Gregory Gale (costumes), Rob Denton (lighting) and Paul Tate dePoo III (sets) – keep the proceedings colorful and bright. The show is a crowd pleaser.

Ryan Silverman and Mikaela Bennett in The Golden Apple at New York City Center. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The choice of the 1954 The Golden Apple for the final slot in the Encores! season at City Center is typical of the series’ commitment to resurrecting forgotten American musicals. A version of the Iliad and Odyssey narratives set in Washington State at the turn of the twentieth century, it’s a pioneering show in two respects: it’s completely through-sung (even Porgy and Bess includes a little dialogue) and it was the first off-Broadway production to make the transfer to Broadway – though not successfully, which may be the reason it’s never revived. I knew it just a little, from the original cast album (which featured Kaye Ballard as Helen, singing the Jerome Moross-John Latouche score’s only take-away hit, the much-covered “Lazy Afternoon”) and more recently from a new recording on PS Classics made of almost all of the music. To be honest I haven’t listened to either version more than a couple of times because, aside from “Lazy Afternoon” and the finale, “We’ve Just Begun,” a gorgeous duet for Ulysses and Penelope, it didn’t make a very strong impression on me. Moross was mostly a film composer, and though Latouche (who also wrote the lyrics for Cabin in the Sky) can be very clever, the individual pieces sound, to my ears at least, more like art songs than show songs.

I was hoping that seeing the score performed dramatically would turn me around, but it didn’t; the songs themselves aren’t dramatic, and though its source may be Homer, The Golden Apple doesn’t contain a single dramatic idea, as far as I can see. Moreover, having sat through Michael Berresse’s perfectly agreeable production, I still have no idea what the theme is supposed to be. Ulysses (Ryan Silverman, who played Terry in the 2014 Broadway revival of Side Show) returns from fighting the Spanish-American War with his cohort, the young men of Angel’s Roost; his wife Penelope (Mikaela Bennett, a fourth-year undergrad at Juilliard with a thrilling soprano) is overjoyed to see him, and he seems satisfied to tame down his restless spirit to settle down with her. The other soldiers are disappointed to find that Helen (Lindsay Mendez, of Dogfight), who was always willing to grant them sexual favors, has married middle-aged Menelaus (Jeff Blumenkrantz), but they swear to protect them both. So when a traveling salesman named Paris (Barton Cowperthwaite) arrives – in a balloon – and carries her off with him to the (relatively) big city of Rhododendron, they’re duty-bound to run after her, once again under Ulysses’ leadership. It’s Lovey Mars (Carrie Compere) who more or less shoves Paris into Helen’s arms, as a reward for his judging a baking contest in her honor, but since the story has, of course, dispensed with the supernatural element in Homer, it’s not clear why Helen, who has made her loyalty to her new husband clear to the homecoming soldiers, should suddenly run off with this notions drummer. In any case, that’s how act one concludes. In the second act Ulysses, famous here as in Homer for his devious intelligence, whips up a scheme to get Helen back. (It didn’t seem so all-fired clever to me.) But the mayor of Rhododendron (Jason Kravits) gets his revenge by exposing the Angel’s Roost contingent to the fleshpots of his city, and after ten years only Ulysses manages to make it home. That’s the plot, and removed from the Homeric context its stakes are awfully low.

There’s another oddity that works against the musical in dramatic terms: Paris is purely a dance role, like Susan the Silent in Finian’s Rainbow. He doesn’t sing a note, so his seduction of Helen feels like a joke. Cowperthwaite certainly dances beautifully, as do the dancers in the ensemble: athletic men and graceful, long-legged women. I preferred the steps choreographer Joshua Bergasse devised for the soldier boys in act one to the balletic numbers featuring the women, especially in act two, but then, the second act is a real trial. It takes most of an hour for Rhododendron’s mayor to eliminate Ulysses’ companions, in dreary, long-winded episodes that seem pointless and feature the worst of Moross’ music. I couldn’t wait for them to be killed off so that the musical could return to Angel’s Roost and the final scene.

The voices are very strong, including those of Ashley Brown and Alli Mauzey, who play Lovey’s rivals for the baking prize, and of N’Kenge, who plays the seeress Mother Hare and, in the Rhododendron section, Circe, whose name is rhymed, predictably with “no mercy.” (Ira Gershwin had already come up with that rhyme for a song in Kurt Weill’s The Firebrand of Florence, but that show is even more obscure than The Golden Apple, so it’s unlikely Latouche cribbed from Gershwin.) Pity N’Kenge’s acting is so awful: she chews Allen Moyer’s scenery, which nods to Thomas Hart Benton. Ken Billington’s lighting gives the show a hyperbright look that seems appropriate for a folk fable. I just wish I knew what the hell this particular fable is supposed to be about.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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