FORT WORTH Although the stage musical Thoroughly Modern Millie premiered in this century (its two-year Broadway run began in 2002 after success in San Diego) and is based on the 1967 movie with Julie Andrews, it’s a love letter to an earlier era of happy-go-lucky musicals in which many of the songs end with the cast members holding their arms up in the air.
As if to say “ta-da!”
Matthew Blake Floyd can now do the same move — as executive producer of Prism Theatrics and as producer of its inaugural production at Will Rogers Auditorium, the spot where all the big musical tours happened in Cowtown before Bass Hall.
He and Prism came to town with hubris about bringing Broadway-level theater to Main Street — as if Fort Worth is a one-stoplight town — and put a lot of money into this project. Not only is it in a huge venue, it features expensive-looking and beautiful art deco-inspired sets (scenic design by Paul Tate dePoo III), an impressive marketing campaign, and mostly New York actors in the lead and secondary roles. Reportedly even the chorus members are being paid nicely for their work, on par with (or more than) what most of the professional theaters in the area pay. Also, there’s a 17-piece orchestra, led by the great Fort Worth native and musical guru Eugene Gwozdz.
And yeah, the production of the show (music by Jeanine Tesori, book by Richard Morris and Dick Scanlan, new lyrics by Scanlan) is pretty darned good. Occasionally great. Tickets have apparently not been selling as well as Prism expected for such a huge space (the top ticket price was initially at $100, but they’re offering online discounts with the promo code “TheBeesKnees” and free tickets are given to law enforcement and emergency workers, military personnel, and teachers).
So that part will take some time and trust-building with local audiences, but as far as bragging that production quality is high, Prism is holding to its word.
Choreographed and directed by Brandon Mason, whose directing credits include Casa Mañana and Bass Hall, the bubbly production hits on almost all marks, starting with Anneliese van der Pol (of TV’s That’s So Raven) in the title role of Millie Dillmount, a Kansan who arrives in New York City in 1922 to seek fame on stage and fortune by marrying her boss — but first she has to get the job with the right boss.
Van der Pol is spunky with a big voice, and like the rest of the cast, a terrific tap dancer. As the fresh-faced but confident country girl with big dreams in the big city (a common musical role), she makes it more credible than many have managed. She’s matched by the ever-smiling Elise Youssef (who has a passing resemblance to Kristen Wiig) as Millie’s new best friend Dorothy and charming Garen McRoberts as Jimmy Smith, the guy Millie doesn’t intend to fall in love with.
As a throwback to the 1920s, the show does have cringe-inducing stereotyping of Asians (and use of the term “white slavery,” which we’d now call “human trafficking”), and as the show’s villain, Mrs. Meers, Andrea Enright honors the script perfectly — and comes away as the scene-stealer. She has competition there from Ashley Smith White as flustered supervisor Miss Flannery. Local favorite Sheran Goodspeed Keyton offers her usual powerful and sassy vocals, and is sincere as socialite Muzzy van Hossmere. The other local in a significant speaking role is Keith J. Warren as Millie’s boss, but his constant arm-flailing is a puzzlement.
Above all, and this is glossed over by too many musical theater companies who are less than top-level, the chorus is vital. It’s a dance musical, and you have to have dancers and singers in top form. These are.
The inaugural Prism outing hasn’t proven that its standards are necessarily higher than the best of the local musical theater companies (notably Lyric Stage), but it is right up there. Floyd can bring his A game, and hubris, back any time.