Star Power Comes to Grand Bend
At first glance, she’s an evil villain, kidnapping young women and selling them into human trafficking. It might be seen as a politically incorrect role, perpetuating a racist stereotype. And in the wrong hands, it could be.
But Drayton Entertainment has brought star power to Huron Country Playhouse: Cindy Williams, beloved for her role as Shirley in the 1970s hit TV show Laverne and Shirley. She plays Mrs. Meers, owner of the Priscilla Hotel in Thoroughly Modern Millie. As part of that role, she’s a con artist with a fake Chinese accent, and like all fictional villains, she does some despicable things. But it is all part of a hilarious character that adds mystery to the plot.
And certainly, Cindy Williams is achieving the goal that Huron Country Playhouse has for her. Her fame is bringing in crowds in June before Grand Bend’s summer season is in full swing. She is also attracting new theatre-goers. In fact, it was obvious at the opening that there were many in the theatre who hadn’t been there before. Neil Aitchison, who sometimes graces the stage as our favourite red-coated Mountie, was thanking sponsors with Drayton Entertainment’s famous single clap. The concept was new to many, as they proceeded to give long applause.
Thoroughly Modern Millie tells the story of young Millie who moves to New York City in the 1920s and decides to modernize herself with bobbed hair and flapper fashions. As a modern young woman, she has discounted love and decides to find herself a job as a stenographer and marry a rich boss. She ends up living with young actress-wannabes at the Priscilla Hotel under Mrs. Meer’s watchful eye. Mrs. Meers drugs and kidnaps the girls, selling them into slavery — a nasty turn, not usually found in musicals. But the many twists in the plot, if done carefully, should result in satire.
Originally Thoroughly Modern Millie was a 1967 movie starring Julie Andrews and Mary Tyler Moore. In 2002, it debuted on Broadway, starring famous triple threat Sutton Foster. Over the years, as it has moved to other theatres and even high school productions, the concerns about racism and jokes based on human trafficking have increased.
Of course, Cindy Williams excels as Mrs. Meer with perfect comedic timing. Drayton Entertainment’s favourite, Jayme Armstrong, stars as Millie. Her voice is perfect for the score as she sings “Not for the Life of Me” and the very popular “Gimme, Gimme”.
Billy Lake, who was perfect as a drag queen in Priscilla Queen of the Desert at St. Jacobs Country Playhouse recently, excelled in this very different role as Jimmy Smith. Lake, like Armstrong, is a true triple threat.
Brent Thiessen, with his tiny English mustache, is perfect as the arrogant Trevor Graydon, and Kayla James shines as Miss Dorothy, the sweetheart with golden curls and a rich voice. Thiessen and James go for the laughs with their operatic duet.
Gabrielle Jones is perfect as Muzzy, belting her big number “Long as I’m Here with You”. Her Muzzy is a cross between Ethel Merman and Bernadette Peters. Christina Gordon is hilarious as the boss of the steno pool, Miss Flannery.
Special mention goes to Ryota Kaneko and Neil Salinas as Bun Foo and Ching Ho. They refrain from letting their characters become silly caricatures. Their use of the Chinese language is convincing, and it is fun to see the translation on the big screen above the stage.
The entire cast is made up of talented tap dancers with amazing vocal skills. Credit goes to Director-Choreographer Michael Lichtefeld for creating such a well-polished show. Thanks to his insight and ability to make the show funny without going too far over the top, this Thoroughly Modern Millie is balanced and should not be seen as politically incorrect.
But the controversy continues – is Thoroughly Modern Millie racist or is it a satire of racism? With the use of humour in this production, the comedy shines through and the satire is evident.
Thoroughly Modern Millie will be on stage at Huron Country Playhouse, Grand Bend until June 22. Tickets are available by calling the Box Office: 519-238-6000 or Toll Free 1-855-372-9866, or check www.huroncountryplayhouse.com
Photo: Left: Jayme Armstrong as Millie and Cindy Williams as Mrs. Meers. Right: Jayme Armstrong as Millie and Brent Thiessen as Trevor Graydon. Photos by Hilary Gauld Camilleri.
Thoroughly Modern Millie
Book by Richard Morris and Dick Scanlan
New music by Jeanine Tesori
New lyrics by Dick Scanlan
Directed and Choreographed by Michael Lichtefeld
Musical Direction by Steve Thomas
Performed by Cindy Williams, Jayme Armstrong, Billy Lake, Brent Thiessen, Kayla James, Gabrielle Jones, Christina Gordon, Ryota Kaneko, Neil Salinas, et al.
Drayton Entertainment Production
Huron Country Playhouse, Grand Bend
June 5 to June 22, 2019
Reviewed by Mary Alderson