All in the Stars

Marvelous Millie: Sutton Foster, in yellow, with the Thoroughly Modern Millie ensemble.Photo: Joan Marcus

I may be the only person living or dead who never saw the movie Thoroughly Modern Millie. But considering how inferior to the celluloid originals most recent stage versions have been, ignorance may indeed be bliss. Untrammeled by expectations, I was free to enjoy the show’s pleasures, modest as they were, though sometimes even several millie-meters better than that.

The best thing about the show is not the book by the late Richard Morris, the movie’s writer, and Dick Scanlan, although it is pleasantly silly. It is not the Scanlan lyrics, though they are pretty good. It is certainly not the new music by Jeanine Tesori, who can sometimes grope her way to a serviceable tune when not laboriously eking out a simulacrum. When toward the end of Act One a real melody made me prick up my ears, I thought, This can’t be Tesori – and sure enough, it wasn’t: “Jimmy” is one of the few golden oldies mercifully interspersed among the tinfoil newies.

No, the best things aren’t even David Gallo’s relentlessly inventive scenery, Martin Pakledinaz’s tongue-in-cheek costuming, and Donald Holder’s irrepressible lighting. Nor are they the cracklingly witty choreography of Rob Ashford, the swell orchestrations of Doug Besterman and Ralph Burns, and the nice dance arrangements by David Chase. The best things are the performances of Sutton Foster as a thoroughly model Millie, and Harriet Harris as the delectably villainous faux-Chinese hotel keeper and white slaver Mrs. Meers.

It is hard to believe that Foster is not a cartoon creation, which in this context is high praise. She is midway between goofy and goony, perhaps goojy, and well worth coining a new word for. Her adorably comic-strip face, rubber-puppet body and limbs, animation greater than Disney’s, and clowning to give Bill Irwin pause add up to sheer mind-teasing and heart-tickling delight. Her mouth knows how to gape as if expecting a peeled grape to come flying into it. And she can turn gawkiness into something gazelle-like. Oh, and incidentally, this virtual unknown can act, sing, and dance up anything from a zephyr to a sirocco. Harris, who has been fine-tuning her inexhaustible comedic skills over some very funny but marginal parts in peripheral productions, emerges here in full fulgurant bloom. Her expressions are dearer than priceless, her timing sharp enough to shave with, and her intonations able to blend innuendo and a punch in the plexus with treacherous demureness. This, let us not mince words, is comic genius.

There are sterling contributions from the verbally and physically nimble Gavin Creel, the trumpetingly commanding Marc Kudisch, and several others, among them Sheryl Lee Ralph, who conjures up a tolerable Josephine Baker. Michael Mayer’s direction holds things neatly together. If the movie Millie can top this, it must be tops for sure.

Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man is – or was, before the present director, Sean Mathias, got hold of it – a worthy boulevard play. Its tragi-grotesque story was told with a touch too deliberate Brechtianizing, its points often made with a pointer in lieu of a pen. But it worked, which is something the British and brutish director cannot tolerate. Like Peter Sellars and others before him, Mathias will not leave well enough alone. But where the Midas touch, turning everything to gold, proved deleterious, the Mathias touch, turning everything to dross, seems highly profitable.

That customarily good designer Santo Loquasto, doubtless on the director’s orders, has didactically turned the unit set into a giant sideshow tent, further emphasized by such fairway staples as fun-house mirrors, as well as a mysterious object like a huge now-transparent, now-opaque half of a round cheese that serves numerous purposes, all of them badly. Not a T is left undotted, not an I is left uncrossed. That each scene begins with a bold-lettered surtitle is not enough: The whole cast must declaim it simultaneously.

Everything here is pomo with a vengeance. Extra characters are sitting or flitting along the sidelines, a bathtub is represented by a vast collapsed tent, and Merrick, the Elephant Man, is usually in his underwear, to show off a fine, albeit contorted, torso. The stage is suddenly outlined near the top with fluorescent light, and the profoundly unmusical Philip Glass provides background music that is never far enough back.

There is, though, Billy Crudup, whose performance as Merrick merits every superlative (and he the best possible chiropractor). He contorts his body and limbs with the kind of elegance to make the unbearable bearable, but never lets the sentimentalists off the hook. His defective speech manages also to be impeccable, and the entire performance radiates a deep but understated conviction, finding the exact proportions of humor and heartbreak.

Rupert Graves is quietly incisive and commanding as the relatively humane Dr. Treves, but Kate Burton is a trifle too actressy even for an actress portraying an actress. The others, notably including Jack Gilpin and Edmond Genest, are supportive enough, as are Loquasto’s costumes and James F. Ingalls’s lighting. The constant shifting of various objects by the cast may or may not delight the stagehands’ union. The shifting of the director back to England should delight all.

Carl Sternheim’s cool comedy The Underpants is almost unrecognizable in the grotesque farce Steve Martin has adapted it into, and the ludicrous travesty Barry Edelstein has staged. The actors are gravely miscast or misdirected, although Cheryl Lynn Bowers maintains some dignity as the heroine who dropped her panties in public (a lesser catastrophe than Martin’s and Edelstein’s losing their minds)… . Talk, by 34-year-old Carl Hancock Rux, is a three-hour symposium about a fictional dead black writer, scantly published but greatly admired. The six symposiasts all had special connections to him and carry on flagrantly, in a play divided into four “modules.” I lasted for one 90-minute module during which Rux managed to drop 68 droppable or semi-droppable names. If he was ridiculing his characters, that is way too much; if only himself, even more so. The actors have a fine chance to display their mnemonic skills at the service of an unmemorable piece of self-indulgence.

Thoroughly Modern Millie
Directed by Michael Mayer; starring Sutton Foster and Harriet Harris.
The Elephant Man
Revival of the Bernard Pomerance play; staged by Sean Mathias; starring Billy Crudup.

All in the Stars