The contradiction in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” is that it’s an old-fashioned musical comedy. You know, the kind of show with peppy tunes you can tap your foot to, broadly drawn characters who don’t tax the intellect and conflict wrinkles that are briskly ironed out in the final 15 minutes or so. But the trick to successfully mounting one of these shows is finding a cast with blazing talent and a creative team who can inject vibrancy into an old chestnut.
Check and double-check with Marquee Theater Company’s staging of this musical based on a middling 1967 movie (starring Julie Andrews, Mary Tyler Moore and Carol Channing) that in turn germinated from a 1956 West End show titled “Chrysanthemum.” This spiffy production, which runs through Aug. 6 at the West Boca Performing Arts Theater, looks great and sounds even better.
The film version of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” was buffed up (and padded out a bit) for Broadway in 2002, a run that made Sutton Foster a star after she replaced Kristin Chenoweth, and won six Tonys. You can still feel the stretch marks in the Marquee production, which clocks in at 2 1/2 hours, including a 20-minute intermission. And yet the show has just enough visual sparkle and choreographic pizzazz that you really don’t mind. Too much.
The story is essentially the same as the one on the big screen and the Broadway stage incarnations. Set in the Roaring Twenties, Millie (Alex Frost) moves from Kansas to New York with a very modern plan for 1922, when women are just beginning to enter the workforce. She is going to get a job as a secretary to a rich man and then marry him, for financial security rather than love. In the big city’s mean — in a G-rated sort of way — streets, she meets Jimmy (Bruno Faria). But she has her sights set on landing a man wealthier than what Jimmy appears to be, so she pays him no mind other than to take his advice on staying in a hotel for women that is managed by the nefarious Mrs. Meers (Jordana Forrest). Millie also meets a new bestie, Miss Dorothy (Shalia Sakona). Then, right after embracing the flapper lifestyle, she gets invited to a swank party thrown by jazzy-bluesy-singing socialite Muzzy (Nicole Dikun) and lands a stenographer position with Trevor Graydon (Michael Cartwright), on whom she sets her sights for her matrimony-for-money plot.
But that’s not the only stratagem going down. Mrs. Meers, who appears to be of Asian descent, has been plucking from her hotel guests for a white-slavery scheme with unseen partners in China, aided by unwilling subordinates Ching Ho (Sven Ballarte) and Bun Foo (Mark Hernandez). As you might imagine, this is where “Thoroughly Modern Millie” reveals its are-they-friggin-serious stereotypes that were not even a blip on the racism radar in the 1967 movie. That sort of thing is in the piece’s DNA, although it has been greatly mitigated with some deft writing in the stage musical, which adds a little spin here and there to make things more 21st century-friendly. Still, there are some wincing moments, particularly when Mrs. Meers’ pidgin English has her greeting everyone with a “herro” and asking if the young ladies in the hotel have any “fah-mee-lee.”
But again, this is a feel-good musical like they used to make back in the day, so all those subplot tangles and romantic blocks are smoothed out in short fashion. It’s practically telegraphed where the show is going in the first 10 minutes.
All the leads are such good singers, belters each and every one of them, that they camouflage the inflexible digital “orchestra” and give Marquee’s “Thoroughly Modern Millie” real power. And the ripsnorting production numbers, impressively staged, well service the score by Jeanne Tesori (“Fun Home,” “Violet” and “Shrek the Musical”) and Dick Scanlon (script consultant for “Motown: The Musical”). This is no mere saving grace. It is a triumph: A more modern take on an old-school “Millie.”
“Thoroughly Modern Millie” runs through Aug. 6 at West Boca Performing Arts Theater, 12811 Glades Road, in Boca Raton (on the campus of West Boca Raton Community High School). Showtimes are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, with 2 p.m. matinee Sunday. Tickets cost $40 ($25 for students with valid ID). To order, call 954-464-8249 or go to MarqueeTheaterCompany.com.