Thoroughly Modern Millie (Theatre Royal, Brighton)

Thoroughly Modern Millie (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday, April 8th)

The old fairytale story of a young dancer being plucked from the chorus line to become the star of the show is winning rave reviews in the West End in the form of the spectacular 42nd Street, a feelgood musical set during the American Depression.

Meanwhile, currently on a major tour is a feelgood musical set in America during the roaring 1920s – and the star of Thoroughly Modern Millie is someone best known for her professional dancing skills, plucked from a popular dance TV show and given the chance to shine as the lead on stage.

Joanne Clifton may well be one of the darlings of Strictly Come Dancing but as Millie Dillmount, the feisty flapper who moves from small-town to New York in the hope of finding a good job and marrying a wealthy boss, she has to enter what is uncharted territory for most audiences, and demonstrate her acting and singing skills.

The good news is that Joanne proves herself admirably: she displays a real sense of fun and an ability to handle the light comedy this madcap musical demands. She is also supported by others with more musical experience, all of whom make the very best of their roles, and the whole is an energetic and enjoyable production. And there are a couple of well-placed asides about the Clifton Strictly family and Millie’s dancing prowess.

The musical is probably best known in its 1967 movie form, with Julie Andrews, Carol Channing, Mary Tyler Moore and Bea Lillie vying for the acting honours. The stage show appeared in 2000, winning six Tonys on Broadway before transferring to the West End, followed by a more successful tour.

The problem with the show, with book by Richard Morris and Dick Scanlan, and new songs by Scanlan and Jeanine Tesori, is that the script just isn’t terribly strong, which means the performers have to work extremely hard to lift it above its silliness and weak plot. It says much about the musical that the central plot of Millie’s plans to marry for money rather than love is largely outgunned by the far more interesting sub-plot of orphaned girls being sold into slavery.

However, it is certainly not the fault of the cast that they are given such insubstantial fluffiness to work with and indeed it is to their credit that they manage to have such fun with their characters, making them likeable and producing some strong musical numbers (even if director and choreographer Racky Plews can occasionally be accused of letting things plod and losing sight of the inherent pastiche).

Leading the charge alongside Joanne Clifton is Graham MacDuff as heartthrob boss Trevor Graydon, with a smooth and silky performance with singing voice to match; his comedy moments, especially in the second half drunk scene, are so perfectly timed that he is in constant danger of making his co-stars corpse.

Lucas Rush plays the villainous hotel landlady Mrs Meers with a knowing wink at Widow Twankey, yet succeeds in reining in the pantomime qualities of his character. He plays it so well that it seems absolutely normal for Mrs Meers to be played by a man (all is explained in the slightly adjusted script), without ever coming across as the sort of drag queen Brighton may be more used to seeing in other establishments around the town.

Katherine Glover is tremendous as Miss Dorothy, the demure wealthy girl trying to discover how the other half lives, and Jenny Fitzpatrick is a powerful Muzzy van Hossmere, while Sam Barrett is sweet as the carefree and charming Jimmy Smith, who falls in love with Millie.

The new songs aren’t all that memorable, but there’s a terrific rendition of Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life/I’m Falling in Love with Someone with MacDuff and Glover giving their best Nelson Eddy and Jeannette Macdonald and a clever Gilbert and Sullivan style, rapid-fire patter song, The Speed Test, as Millie’s skills as a stenographer are tested to the limit.

Thoroughly Modern Millie isn’t without fizz, yet the bubbles have a hard time covering up the froth. Be that as it may, it’s never less than entertaining and a great vehicle for Joanne Clifton who, as she gains experience in the genre, must surely go on to greater things.

David Guest

Picture: Darren Bell