‘Millie’ satisfies like a breath of fresh air

Nicole Ledgerwood hits just the right note of spunk and determination as the title character in the Whidbey Children’s Theater/South Whidbey High School production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” - Tom Harris photo
Nicole Ledgerwood hits just the right note of spunk and determination as the title character in the Whidbey Children’s Theater/South Whidbey High School production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”
— image credit: Tom Harris photo

There’s nothing better than a Midwestern-girl-challenges-big-city-New-York, toe-tapping bright and shiny musical to make your day.

Especially if everything works out right, and with “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” everything does.

Co-produced by South Whidbey High School and Whidbey Children’s Theater, the current production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” features a cast of 40 singing, tap-dancing high schoolers who deliver the goods and then some in this musical showstopper of a play.

“Thoroughly Modern Millie” is based on the 1967 Julie Andrews movie of the same name, and on Broadway it won for best musical along with five other Tony Awards in 2002.

Indeed, the story is fairly simple and predictable, but never assumes it is anything more, adding satisfying bits of irony and humor to keep the whole thing moving along in a pleasant come-along-for-the-ride kind of way.

Suzanne Kelman’s choreography is full of flair and matches the tongue-in-cheek playfulness of the script. This cast of mainly non-dancers does a bang-up job, rising to the challenges of Kelman’s clever movements with a spirit that equals that of the genuine flappers of the Jazz Age.

All that exhilarating dancing and character tableaus are accentuated by the wonderfully vibrant period costumes of the 1920s, brought together by costumer Valerie Johnson and the generosity of Studio East in Kirkland, which loaned many of the costumes for this production.

It all sounds great, too, thanks to the smart musical direction of Dana Linn and a cast that has the singing chops to make the songs soar.

The play gets a wonderful boost from the well-designed and colorfully lit art deco sets that are efficiently minimalist, managing to set the scenes just enough without getting in the way of the actors.

All the actors, from the principals to the ensemble, are a joy to watch, and it is evident that everyone who graced the stage on Sunday afternoon had benefited from what must have been a challenging rehearsal process full of vocal gymnastics, elocution, tap-dancing, comic timing, a bit of mime, quick costume changes, playful character development and even an impressive foray into the Chinese language.

Co-directors Linn and Kelman kept up a nice jaunty pace throughout the production, managing to draw out the funniest bits of the script along with a healthy dose of sincerity and commitment from these teenage actors.

To elevate any big musical to the next level, you need a special ensemble. And this team of moderns, high-society folk and typing beauties of all shapes and sizes, along with their secretarial maven Rosemary, played by funny Sarafina Durr, are so much fun to watch. With legs kicking and voices singing, they do it all, and are super-cute the whole time.

Evan Elwell gives the well-meaning Jimmy Smith the natural self-confidence of a man who knows what he wants while maintaining the sweetness of a love-struck boy.

Kim McLean and Ethan Berkley are perfectly cast, she striking the right balance of the impossibly feminine and sweet-voiced Miss Dorothy Brown and he, dapper and oblivious as Millie’s boss, Mr. Trevor Graydon. Berkley was deft at keeping his tongue planted firmly in his cheek, an invisible wink ready in every scene for the audience.

Justine Coomes was exceptionally good as the deceptive white-slave trader Mrs. Meers. With a wonderful tone, a solid voice and a natural aptitude for comic timing, she stole the show in every one of her scenes. She was hilarious, and possesses a talent beyond her years.

Athena Michaelides and Trevor Hein, too, must be applauded for their work as Mrs. Meers' Chinese helpers, Bun Foo and Ching Ho. It must be difficult to have to learn all your lines in Chinese and sing in such a tricky language as well, but these two young actors did it all with aplomb and believability.

One of the highlights of this production is the show-stopping Allie Firth as the sophisticated entertainer, Muzzy Van Hossmere. This show is worth seeing for a lot of reasons, but if the audience were treated only to Firth singing “Only in New York,” it would be worth the price of the ticket.

Firth is a perfect example of what people in this community talk about when they rave about the talent here, no matter what their age. Just as her character Muzzy is the singing sensation of a 1922 Manhattan nightclub, so Firth could do the same thing in 2009. Luckily, she’s back in Act II, and sings a beautiful rendition of “Long As I’m Here With You,” rounding it all out with a wonderfully mature and sassy acting performance.

For all the great performances packed into the two hours of “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” it must be said that among all of them it is ultimately Nicole Ledgerwood, as the spitfire Millie Dillmount, who carries this show.

Not only does Ledgerwood perfectly embody the physical look of a naive farm girl fresh off the train from Kansas, she also plays Millie with just the right amount of moxie-like resolve to make every song, every movement, every bit of dialogue believable — as if she really were determined to be “modern” in the Big Apple, no matter what it takes.

Ledgerwood, who unbelievably has never performed as a theater artist before this production, can belt out a tune with the best of them. She’s a natural, and it’s a pleasure to watch this “Millie” make her way through the labyrinth of her fine fellow performers, singing and dancing with them sprightly the whole way through.

It’s been five years since a large-scale musical has graced the high school stage. “Millie” producers Dana Harris and Barbara Walker said they are game to see a renewed commitment to the theater program to provide all high school students on the South End with a musical theater opportunity every other year.

If the talent that was bursting off the stage of this production is any indication for future successes, perhaps the audience that only peppered the auditorium on Sunday, will one day come to be a 400-seat full house.

Remaining performances for “Thoroughly Modern Millie” are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 5 ($5 family night) and Saturday, Nov. 7 (an ASL interpreted performance); (there is no show Friday, Nov. 6); and 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 8. Tickets are $12 for adults and $8 for students and seniors, and are available at the door. South Whidbey High School Auditorium is at 5675 S. Maxwelton Road in Langley.

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