One could say that Millie is strictly about having a good time, which is fine--but there's little fun to be found in its silly book by Richard Morris (who wrote the screenplay for the 1967 film on which the stage musical is based) and Dick Scanlan. For that matter, the mostly derivative new songs by Jeanine Tesori and Scanlan are only occasionally memorable. The score is littered with the contributions of quite a few other composers: The title song of the movie (James Van Heusen/Sammy Cahn) has been retained, and there is also a melody by Arthur Sullivan of Gilbert and Sullivan fame (with a clever lyric by Dick Scanlan), as well as passages by everyone from Tchaikovsky to Victor Herbert. Mind you, the music is used to considerable comic effect, but it just adds to a sense of creative bankruptcy. If this is a "new" musical, why so much old music?
To be fair, the film version of Millie--starring Julie Andrews, Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Channing, and Beatrice Lillie--is no classic to begin with and much of its score also consisted of famous old tunes like "Baby Face," "Do It Again," and "Jazz Baby." In some respects, the stage musical improves upon the flick; for example, there is a much more driving, credible opening sequence in which Millie is seen first arriving in New York at the height of the Jazz Age rather than starting, as the movie more or less does, three months after her move to the Big Apple. Also much better is the way the two Chinese henchmen are used in the plot--and they are given some delightful musical comedy business to perform. On the other hand, the new Millie falls woefully short in matching the movie's version of the madcap antics of Muzzy, the rich widow who takes Millie under her wing. This is not a matter of Carol Channing (on screen) outshining Sheryl Lee Ralph (on stage); rather, it's that film allows for much more visual splendor and special-effects magic than does the theater. Whereas Channing literally flies in the film (several times), Ralph goes splat. She might have had a chance if she'd been handed a couple of killer songs but, unfortunately, the two mediocre numbers she has been given only help to murder her performance.
Of course, this musical doesn't live or die through Muzzy but through Millie, and that's a genuine plus for the show. Sutton Foster plays our heroine with unadulterated joy; in fact, her passion for performing seems to be the only genuine emotion in the production. A fine physical comedian who sings swell, dances with verve, and acts with winning charm, Foster looks like the odds-on favorite for a Tony.
The rest of the actors give performances that range from forgettable to excellent. The bland Gavin Creel plays Jimmy Smith, the supposedly charming underachiever who loves Millie, and the innocuous Angela Christian makes little impression until late in the show as Millie's best girlfriend, the ultra-feminine Miss Dorothy. On the other hand, Marc Kudisch as the impossibly straight-arrow Mr. Graydon steals every one of his scenes in a role that finally takes advantage of his big, bluff style. So, too, Harriet Harris deserves accolades for her comically charged performance as Mrs. Meers, a failed actress masquerading as an Asian dragon lady who kidnaps beautiful, young orphan girls from the hotel she manages.
If the show's book and score are less than stellar, Rob Ashford's choreography is exuberant and playful: A typing-and-tapping number is a standout, as is a speakeasy routine. David Gallo's elaborate sets and Martin Pakledinaz's excessively colorful costumes are eye candy. The production's ringmaster, director Michael Mayer, does an exceptional job of keeping the audience's mind off the show's limitations and stressing its strengths: color, pacing, laughs.
Thoroughly Modern Millie doesn't have Urinetown's originality or wit, nor does it have the ambition of Sweet Smell of Success. To say that it's better than Mamma Mia! only points up what a pitiful season this has been for Broadway musicals.