Arts & Events

'Thoroughly Modern Millie' at Contra Costa Civic Theatre

By Ken Bullock Special to the Planet
Monday June 29, 2009 - 02:43:00 PM

A Midwestern gal takes a bite of the Big Apple, gets her hair bobbed, dances the Charleston in a speakeasy and is busted in a raid; falls for the first ne’er-do-well she meets, instead of the successful boss she’s determined on; evades the toils of White Slavery—and lives happily ever after. 

That’s the lowdown on Thoroughly Modern Millie, the musical on stage at Contra Costa Civic Theatre in El Cerrito, carrying the torch of the ’60s film spoof of the Roaring ’20s that it’s fashioned after. (Which, in hindsight, looks like a crazy quilt of crossed talents: Julie Andrews, James Fox, Carol Channing—and the glorious Bea Lillie in her silver screen swan song—directed by Ross Hunter! Oh those eclectic ’60s ...)  

Summer ups the demand for frothy fare—as does the air of uncertainty around state and national issues, especially the economy. But Millie isn’t just a pleasant airhead, even if that’s how a few of the kids on the corner type our heroine. With Daren A. C. Carollo directing and Joe Simiele conducting the sextet that powers Liz Caffrey’s choreography and the singing of cast and ensemble—the production numbers are exciting, the pacing is crisp—if it’s frothy, that’s what it all gets whipped up into. 

Besides the street Millie arrives on, divested of purse, hat and scarf in the process, and the aforementioned speakeasy, as well as the precinct office for booking and a conga line of mug shots, the plot propels our novice flapper into a “theatrical” hotel, filled with forlorn Broadway wannabes; the typing pool of a high-powered office downtown; and the swank precincts of Cafe Society, if also its kitchen when dishwashing passes for legal tender.  

Millie (Morgan Breedveld) meets man-about-town Jimmy Smith (Ron Houk), a jack-of-all-trades, as well as other hyphenated non-professions; Mrs. Meers (Laurie Strawn, playing Bea Lillie’s nutty role as a would-be diva posing as crossover dragon lady), who runs the hotel, and her behind-the-scenes accomplices Ching Ho (Bryan Pangilinan) and Bun Foo (Natalie Tse); statuesque ingenue Miss Dorothy Brown (Hannah M. Newton), the girl (in the hotel room) next door; Miss Flannery (Marisa Borowitz), who runs the corps-de-bureau with an iron hand for adored (if frenetic) boss Trevor Graydon (Tom Reardon); and socialite/chanteuse (on the Red Hot Mama side), Muzzy Van Hossmere (Patty Penrod). 

A show like this is dependent on a few elements: competent leads to further plot and romance; a gallery of eccentric characters and the actors who can bring them to zany life; and a hardworking ensemble that can swing into action, yet turn on a dime, going from auditioners to barflies, stenographers to haute monde ... and back again. CCCT manages well in all categories, not always a given in community theater, which just adds to the warmth of its neighborly, family-oriented feeling. 

It all gets nutty as soon as Millie checks in to Mrs. Meers’ sinister hostelry—and when Ching Ho and Bun Foo burst out in a Cantonese reprise, replete with supertitles (and other operatic exaggerations), of Millie’s brave little number, “Not for the Life of Me,” giving pre-talkies Al Jolson a run for his Hong Kong dollar. The show switches into high gear right after intermission with Millie, Miss Flannery and a phalanx of lovelorn typists avowing to “Forget About the Boy.” 

If I’m evading the story more than a little, it’s because it’s a mixture of surprises and camped-up clichés—all in the cleverness of the doing, a kaleidoscope of off-the-wall burlesques of oldtime big-town fun that still delivers the goods, revolving around Lisa Johnson’s great Manhattan set, with Adam Fry and Travis Rexroat’s lights and sound and costumer Melissa Anne Paterson’s period dress sprucing up nearly two dozen livewire performers intent on having fun—and conveying it. 




8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays through July 19, at Contra Costa Civic Theatre, 951 Pomona Ave., El Cerrito. $15-$24. 524-9132. 

Contra Costa Civic Theatre will host a cast reunion party, an event in their ongoing 50th anniversary celebration, Saturday, July 24. Cast members from 1960 through the present are invited.