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THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE (article first published : 2007-01-20)

I was lucky enough to be passing through Johannesburg last weekend on my way back home after our annual Christmas get-away and was able to catch the thoroughly delightful Thoroughly Modern Millie at the Johannesburg Civic Theatre.

Based on the 1967 George Roy Hill film starring Julie Andrews and Mary Tyler Moore, the musical is set in the Roaring Twenties at the height of the Jazz Age in New York City. The main character is a flapper – a term describing a young woman of the time who flouted conventional behaviour and clothing styles - named Millie Dillmount. Arriving in New York, she becomes “modern” by bobbing her long hair, raising her hemlines and setting out to marry her boss, never mind that she hasn’t even got a job yet!

Playing the sassy Millie Dillmount is Samantha Peo who gives as fine a performance as she did in Chicago. Mr Graydon, the boss she eventually works for, is played by Craig Urbani. Just as engaging as ever and making a welcome return to South Africa, Craig recreates his own role from the 2003 West End stage production of Thoroughly Modern Millie.

We last saw Angela Kilian in Durban in The Sound of Music in 2005 and she makes an adorable and ditsy Miss Dorothy. Abigail Kubeka is glamorous and flamboyant as Muzzy Van Hossmere and she has us all agape with a series of high kicks along with the dance team! Brennan Holder is an endearing and attractive Jimmie while Michele Levin, formerly of Durban, who I’ve only seen in straight comedy before, impressed me with her dancing ability as the prissy office manager with elbows to die for!

Galloping away with the honours for me was Fiona Ramsay as Mrs Meers. What a delicious performance of this manipulative, trashy agent for a white slavery ring masquerading as the Japanese proprietor of The Priscilla Hotel! Her two bumbling side-kicks Jonathan Swart and Mortimer Williams as Ching Ho and Bun Foo are hilarious.

The film won an Oscar for Best Original Music Score and it will be a disappointment for those who loved the film to find that only two of these numbers are in the musical – the title song and Jimmie which Samantha Peo sang with aching tenderness. I understand that the main reason for the film not being replicated was copyright issues on the music and songs. However, don’t let this deter you – the musical has its own magic with nine original songs by Jeanine Tesori (music) and Dick Scanlan (lyrics). Much humour is derived from songs created from well-known standards from the 1920s such as Mammy (a delicious riot, especially the sur-titles!)

All kudos to Civic Theatre CEO Bernard Jay for seeing the potential in offering to house the sets from the London musical and thereby presenting a season of the musical in South Africa using the same sets and lighting. UK director David Bownes has created a highly enjoyable production which takes full advantage of all the comedy moments.

The sets are impressive - there’s that famous lift that will only work if you do a tap dance in it! – and the lighting is superb. And, of course, with Bryan Schimmel as musical director you can’t go very far wrong! The dancers are slick and disciplined and the choreography focuses strongly on the tap style of the period. The initial office scene with the “typists” at desks on wheels is wonderful – only topped by the appearance of Mr Graydon’s own expansive office desk!

Thoroughly Modern Millie runs in the Nelson Mandela Theatre at The Johannesburg Civic Theatre until February 25. Tickets from R235 (exclusive of the booking fee) at Computicket. Call 083 915 8000 or go to www.computicket.com – Caroline Smart




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