In the first song of Cabaret, Emcee welcomes the audience to the Kit Kat club singing, “Leave your troubles outside. So life is disappointing? Forget it! Here, life is beautiful.” Sometimes when the world is on fire, you want a night of joyful escape.
If you’re in need of a shot of happiness, then stop by the BDT Stage to catch their latest show Thoroughly Modern Millie, playing through Feb. 25.
The musical is set in 1922 and follows fresh-off-the-bus-from-Kansas-to-New-York-City Millie Dillmount. Millie’s got big “modern-woman” dreams, to marry her boss and live a life of luxury. As luck would have it, her plans go awry.
Based off the 1967 film, the musical opened on Broadway in 2002, earning 11 Tony nominations and winning six, including best choreography, best leading actress and best musical.
Reminiscent of the Guys and Dolls era of theater, it pokes fun at old-school musicals while still producing a classic example of the genre. With songs like “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life,” which lovingly mocks the incredulousness of love at first sight, Millie embodies that classic musical feeling. And yet, the show has a personality of its own, proving that you can emulate an era and still move theater forward.
Millie is the sort of show that makes you want to call everyone whippersnapper and do the Charleston. It’s stacked with sweet, simple jokes that are so darn cute they illicit a few knee slaps. But the story is far from simple, embracing slapstick hijinks, and filled with plenty of twists and turns.
There are many highlights of the show, including snazzy costumes, colorful sets and delightful songs. But the clear standout is the dancing, specifically the multitude of tap numbers, which make it hard to not watch Millie without a smile plastered across your face. Although “Forget about the Boy” is superb, the best scene is “Speed Test,” where frumpy typists use their tap shoes to emulate the sound of their typewriters. It’s plain, ol’ fashioned theater gold.
The one hiccup in Millie is its portrayal of race, one character specifically. The owner of the hotel where Millie lives is the evil Mrs. Meers, who is a white actress impersonating a radical caricature of an Asian woman to avoid police detection of her white slavery operation.
Millie’s co-author and lyricist Dick Scanlan has given statements in the past to defend the character, explaining the choice was intentional for Meers to portray a stereotype. More from Scanlan and BDT Stage’s decision can be found in the program for the show, with BDT acknowledging that the bigger message of the musical shows how ridiculous these portrayals are. It’s laudable for the company to be thoughtful enough to address the elephant in the room.
The justification for the role of Mrs. Meers and the choices for doing so aren’t all bad. But one could argue that even portraying a harmful stereotype on purpose can further glorify that stereotype. In the end, it’s easy to give Millie the benefit of the doubt.
And to its credit, Millie does have diverse characters, depicting the American dream from multiple angles. The show gives them motivations and story lines instead of treating them as props.
BDT Stage’s production of the award-winning musical was overall a welcome night at the theater. The company presents the show with the talented and charming cast the show calls for. Rebekah Ortiz is a pleasure to watch in the role of Dorothy, Scott Severtson plays Trevor Graydon with a punch, and Burke Walton pops with charisma as Jimmy. The always-great Alicia K. Meyers as Muzzy is a knockout, as is the equally fabulous Joanie Brosseau as Mrs. Meers.
Unsurprisingly, the best performance of the night goes to Seles VanHuss, who plays the title role. Millie requires pep and pizzazz, and VanHuss delivers just that with a Lucille Ball-like quality. She seems born to play Millie, a role that utilizes all of her strengths. Amid the glitzy costumes and big dance numbers, VanHuss shines in each scene, alone or in a chorus line, radiating beyond the glamour around her.
When the world’s got you down, the theater can be a delicious respite, and Thoroughly Modern Millie is a scoop of ice cream with a cherry on top.
On the Bill: Thoroughly Modern Millie. BDT Stage, 5501 Arapahoe Ave., Boulder, 303-449-6000. Through Feb. 25.