"Ya either got it or ya ain't," sings Mama Rose in her 11 o'clock number in Gypsy. Well, a new production company has sprung up in North Texas, calling itself Prism Theatrics, and the D/FW theatre world has been wondering if their debut will sparkle or fizzle like cut-rate 4th of July fireworks.
Prism's Thoroughly Modern Millie opened on July 3rd at Will Rogers Auditorium, and I can happily report that this show has definitely "got it."
Originally the vehicle that Sutton Foster drove to stardom (and a Tony Award), Millie has been a staple for community theatres around town for a while (Garland Summer Musicals opens its own version July 18th). So it may seem a strange choice for a big-budget introduction of a new venture.
Fortunately, producer Blake Floyd and director Brandon Mason have the talent of Anneliese van der Pol as their secret weapon. Best known as Chelsea Daniels on Disney's That's So Raven, van der Pol proves that she can fill Sutton's tap shoes quite well. She has an impressive Broadway belt and enough charisma and hoofer chops to more than hold her own as the musical's star.
She's joined onstage by a blend of local and out-of-town talent, and it's impossible to tell which is which. For example, Keith Warren and Sheran Goodspeed Keyton (who have been seen on stages all over the Metroplex) are just as professional and sing just as well as Garen McRoberts and Elise Youssef, who have been brought in by the producers from New York and California. Executive Producer Floyd says: "We want to bring premium theatre to Main Street, USA." And the production values of this Millie are stellar. The set design, by Paul Tate dePoo III is glorious and looks every bit as expensive as a national tour. The 17-piece orchestra (led by conductor/music director Eugene Gwozdz) sounds lush and full. So why pay the housing and travel for out-of-towners, when you could cast the show three times over with local talent?
The answer lies in the cachet of presenting a show that seems so important that people from New York City are willing to participate in it. For years, that's been the draw at theatre companies from Casa Manana to Dallas Theater Center. Is such a tactic still necessary, though? The talent pool in the area is immense, folks. Do audiences really base their entertainment dollars on where the cast normally resides?
As for this cast, it's top-to-bottom talent.
van der Pol plays the titular Millie, a fresh-off-the-bus face from Kansas who has landed in the Big Apple of the 1920s to find a successful man to marry. She gets caught up in the "modern" flapper nightlife, shacks up in a boarding house for young actresses and lands a job as a "stenog" for a life insurance company.
Warren, who plays Trevor Graydon, blusters like a boss, which makes him the perfect target for Millie's goal. His mechanical gestures and bewildered demeanor suggest a man who has little going on, aside from his tailored suit and his name on the door of his office. Warren's booming baritone is reminiscent of Marc Kudisch, who played the role on Broadway. He's wonderfully amusing and ultimately heartwarming.
McRoberts' Jimmy Smith is the fly in Millie's ointment. He's determined to get her out on a date, even though his vagabond ways are the polar opposite of what she's looking for. When he finally gets to unleash his gorgeous tenor voice in Act Two, you'll find yourself practically screaming at Millie to open her eyes and see what's right before her.
Keyton gets the spotlight in what Martin Short--in his semi-autobiographical satire of show business, Fame Becomes Me--describes as the moment when musicals "let a big, black lady stop the show." Her two numbers are soulful and jazzy, and as she mentors young Millie, she becomes the Auntie Mame we all wish we could have, that savvy celebrity who can dig us out of our holes of naivete.
And then there's Mrs. Meers and her pair of assistants, Ching Ho and Bun Foo. In a comic subplot left over from the 1967 musical film of Millie, a plot that probably slayed them in the aisles before it became taboo to laugh at stereotypical foreign accents, Meersy and her boys are funnier than they should be (and you'll laugh in spite of yourself). Andrea Enright, Ryan Finley and Jackson Perrin are all great fun, and they make much more sense of the proceedings than a synopsis can suffice.
Youssef and Ashley Smith White play two more strong, independent women in Millie's life. Youssef plays Miss Dorothy, a greener-than-green innocent who isn't quite what she seems. White's Miss Flannery is the office major domo, but her iron fists (and supple elbows) are traded for dancin' feet at the top of Act Two, when the office ladies perform their show-stopping ode to spurned love ("Forget About the Boy"). Both ladies have delicious singing voices (can you guess which one is from Ft. Worth, without looking at the program?)
The cast is full of gems, and there isn't one truly weak link. The show ultimately belongs to van der Pol, however. She's radiant, beautiful, full of pluck and vigor, and she's truly at home on the stage.
Prism Theatrics makes quite a splash with their inaugural production. If you like classic musical theatre, full of dance and romance, this Thoroughly Modern Millie will not disappoint.
Bonus: Producer Floyd says all teachers, firefighters, law enforcement and military personnel should present their official identification to the Will Rogers Auditorium ticket office. That identification will be good for two free tickets. Additional tickets will be available for a special half-price discount.
Thoroughly Modern Millie, presented by Prism Theatrics, runs through July 20th at Will Rogers Auditorium in Ft. Worth. Visit www.prismtheatrics.com for tickets and more info.