Sometimes you have to stand up and applaud chutzpah. That’s often the case with high school musicals, where some directors are willing to challenge their casts — and even their audiences — with difficult shows.
Challenge is the word for “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” which, on the surface, is innocuous enough. What’s challenging about a throwback musical, adapted from the 1967 movie? (That’s back when Julie Andrews and Mary Tyler Moore could still play the ingenues.)
After all, it’s a flapper-era show, set in 1922 when big city culture was giddy with new freedoms like rising skirts and bobbed hair, before the decade settled into corruption and excess. There’s lots of cheery tap dancing to clever period music by Jeanine Tesori and even a Gilbert & Sullivan number that goes back further still. And think of the opportunities for colorful costumes.
But think also about that tap dancing. It was one of the great pleasures of last weekend’s production of “Millie” at Yough High School that director/producer Tracy Kelley and choreographer Meredith Semon somehow convinced a couple of dozen high school kids that they could learn to tap dance in a month or two and then were proved right. “Millie” is right behind “42nd Street” in the “everybody tap dance” mode.
For another challenge, look at the book by Richard Morris and Dick Scanlon, which, along with arcane (to many) references to Dorothy Parker and George Gershwin, includes both Prohibition-era speak-easies and the unseemly threat of white slavery. (Perhaps the younger sensibilities don’t really know what that is, or was – it goes by a harsher term now). There are also some mixed racial stereotypes, potentially cringe-worthy today. Add to that the central plot, in which the title character is an avowed fortune hunter.
But with consistent good cheer and some judicious pruning, “Millie” emerged as what it basically is: a reverse Cinderella story where the girl settles for true love instead of fortune, and then, surprise!, gets fortune as well. Similarly, Yough tackled the show’s challenges head on and emerged victorious itself.
I say this on the basis of the dress rehearsal, the only performance I could see. I noted hardly a glitch: It was ready to go. All I missed is what I particularly enjoy about high school musicals, a big audience happily abuzz with family and friends and then the meltdown at the end, when the giddy cast, usually still in costume, mingles with the adoring audience in the lobby. I particularly like to watch the younger siblings looking up at the family stars. And, of course, I like the bake sale at intermission.
Not to say that the middle school kids who made up the small dress rehearsal audience didn’t respond with enthusiasm. But I assume Yough got the real thing in its weekend performances.
What the audience got was a show strongest in its sense of ensemble but anchored by some lively lead performers, Amber Kaska (Millie) and Brandon Shawl (Jimmy). Ms. Kaska’s strongest quality was a charismatic presence and commanding determination, a perfect match for her character, who needs the stamina to drive the show. Mr. Shawl seemed equally comfortable, with obvious acting experience to draw on. You can’t teach stage presence such as these two have.
Paige Raines brought gravelly maturity to Muzzy, and Jordan Gilbert, a ditsy glee to the villainous Mrs. Meers. Lynne Marie Gillott (Miss Dorothy) and Eric Westerman (Mr. Graydon) were funny as the surprise second couple -- except that there’s a final twist. Among smaller roles, Hallie McGrew was vivid as the office manager with the bark worse than her bite.
Another Yough challenge is common to some high schools, the overwhelming proportion of girls to boys – in this case, 22 to five. (That’s fewer than many high schools put on stage in one small dance number.) The result was a gender change in one supporting role, but otherwise, the girls just had to party by themselves. Fortunately, one of the chief pleasures of “Millie” is the camaraderie of the girls in Millie’s apartment building and in the office where she works.
Gary Greenawalt conducted a musical combo of 10, mixing professionals with volunteers. There were few sets, which moved an already-long show along more quickly.
Seeing “Millie” hereabouts has the added pleasure for me of remembering the Pittsburgh connections of the 2002 Broadway premiere: Rob Ashford (Point Park University), making his Broadway debut as choreographer and winning a Tony; star Sutton Foster (Carnegie Mellon University), who also won a Tony; ensemble members Megan Sikora, Roxanne Barlow and Melissa Bell Chait; and even Pittsburgh CLO, a happy investor.
At Yough, the annual musical is primarily chosen by a tight-knit trio of the director and choreographer and the vocal director, Kevin Kelley. Sometimes small is lots of fun.
Go to www.post-gazette.com/ae/theater-dance for more coverage of high school musicals, including reviews by high school students of other schools’ shows and a master list of 117 Western Pennsylvania musicals and the three regional showcases in May.
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944. Yough is the 69th high school where Mr. Rawson has reviewed a musical, starting in 1991.