At Toby's, `Millie' is savvy, spirited and funny

Dinner theater's staging, choreography are bright and lively, the costumes splendid



A small-town girl goes to New York in the 1920s and finds adventure, friendship and finally love. That basically is the story of Thoroughly Modern Millie, both the 1967 movie and the stage adaptation now running at Toby's Dinner Theatre.

On the night we attended, a spunky performance by Lauren Spencer-Harris was interrupted by illness during Act I. Her understudy, Ashley Adkins, took over almost seamlessly. It was her first performance in the role and she did a commendable job.

Millie Dillmount has a plan -- go to work for a company run by a handsome single man and marry him. Her boss, Trevor Graydon, is a cheerful, outgoing go-getter -- just the type she is looking for. Ken Ewing brings vigor, charm and a fine baritone voice to the role.

Jimmy Smith (Jeffrey Shankle, another fine baritone) is a brusque young New Yorker who came to Millie's aid when she lost her suitcase and money to thieves on her first day in town.

Millie is attracted to him, but disapproves of his irresponsible attitude toward life.

There is something strange about Mrs. Meers, manager of her hotel, but Millie is too busy to notice. With a fine sense of comedy, Debra Barber-Eaton brings out all of Mrs. Meers' devious facets.

Millie's roommate is a prim, overdressed young woman who insists on being called Miss Dorothy. She claims to be a friendless orphan, but she obviously comes from a moneyed background and is not what she seems. Tess Rohan makes Miss Dorothy a lovable character and performs her music in a glorious soprano.

And then there is Muzzy van Hossmere, the flamboyant, warm-hearted widow of a millionaire, who runs a nonstop party in her penthouse when she isn't singing in a nightclub. Richelle Howie plays Muzzy with spirit and theatrical savvy.

The staging by Toby Orenstein and the choreography by Ilona Kessell are bright and lively, as always. Songs and production numbers are set on a New York street; the lobby of Millie's hotel; her office; a speakeasy (dark and smoky, with a wailing saxophone in the background); a jail (in the Prohibition era, and Millie and her friends get busted); and Muzzy's penthouse.

The 1967 movie score has been replaced by a new one by Jeanine Tesori. The music, though it has touches of 1920s flavor, is basically in contemporary Broadway style.

Several numbers are borrowed from other composers. A patter trio from Gilbert and Sullivan's Ruddigore (1887) has been fitted with new words. A production number has strong echoes of Tchaikovsky.

Victor Herbert's "Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life," from Naughty Marietta (1910) is sung pretty much as written, but Al Jolson's signature song, "My Mammy" (1918), is heard in a Lithuanian translation.

All these borrowings are done for effect and work perfectly in context, but the original composers and lyricists should be given credit.

Costumes and wigs designed by Lawrence B. Munsey -- seemingly hundreds of them, all splendid -- give the show a consistent flavor of the 1920s.

The basis of the show's action is the romantic relationships among Millie, Jimmy, Mr. Graydon and Miss Dorothy, but a prominent subplot centers on Mrs. Meers.

It seems the New York papers have been carrying stories about unattached young women going missing, and the audience learns that Mrs. Meers is behind these disappearances. The obvious motive for the kidnappings was made plain in the 1967 movie. In Toby's stage version it is left unstated to avoid offense.

Further changes have been made for the same reason. Mrs. Meers is played as a sinister Gypsy, but to avoid ethnic stereotyping she is not really a Gypsy but a former actress pretending to be one.

Her criminal helpers are not Asians, as in the movie, but Lithuanians. And so as not to offend Lithuanians, they are not criminals -- just well-meaning working lads trying to make enough money to bring their poor old mother to America.

David Bosley Reynolds and Shawn Kettering, playing Vytus and Vosylius, not only had to learn their lines, they had to learn them in Lithuanian. They carry it off triumphantly.

Toby's Dinner Theatre, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, presents "Thoroughly Modern Millie" through June 18. Doors open at 6 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays. Matinees: Doors open at 10:30 a.m. Sundays and Wednesdays. Reservations are required. 410-730-8311 or 800-888-6297.

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