Thoroughly modern retro musicals

SEABROOK – Two very different musical theater productions are in our midst – productions that have little in common at first other than being written early in the 2000s. At a closer view, however, both “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” performed by the Prince George’s Little Theatre and “Thoroughly Modern Millie” enacted by the Reston Community Players are – to adopt the title of the latter – “thoroughly retro modern musicals,” blending venerable broadway traditions with a dose of modern cynicism. 

“Thoroughly Modern Millie” (playing through May 12) is an enjoyable production by the Reston Community Players in Reston - a community theater to take note of for its variety and seriousness of repertoire. A production I saw earlier this season of Tennessee Williams’ edgy “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” at Reston was nothing short of excellent. Later this year the community players will take on an adaptation of “Spring Awakening,” a rock musical based on the 19th century by Frank Wedekind which is uncomfortable and disturbing even by today's libertine standards. The focus this month at Reston is on young Millie, an ingénue who arrives in New York City in the flapper era of 1922. The 1967 film on which this is based is sweet and cute (Julie Andrews! Mary Tyler Moore!), but this Broadway play, which premiered some 35 years later is much more real world, much more modern.

After Evie Korovesis as a spunky Millie and the cast sing and dance, to the toe-tapping faux 1920’s-title song, our heroine (unlike in the film) is mugged on the streets of the city and nearly gives up her big adventure in the city. However, she stays and makes friends among the aspiring young actresses at the boarding house where she is living...some of whom begin to disappear mysteriously. Millie’s desires are less than morally inspiring, for she is a speed typist who is interviewing various firms to choose which firm she will work for to marry the richest boss. Yet in the end, she finds herself “falling in love with someone,” borrowing the words from an operetta song in turn borrowed for this show.

A stand-out performer in the cast is Robin Lynn Reaves with her powerful jazz singing voice as Millie's friend, chanteuse Muzzy Van Hossmere. Robin is the one performer to appear in both “Millie” and a cameo singing selection in Reston’s just completed “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” and it was a pleasure to hear her again.

While the other performers on stage are excellent, the live orchestra at times seemed not entirely in tune. “Millie” on stage is a rawer version of the story from the film, and there are some dissonant chords in the score to underscore this as the “Thoroughly Modern Millie” leitmotif is repeated after the intermission. The occasional dissonance in the orchestra was evident, however, in songs which were clearly meant to be melodic, and so the orchestra might have benefited from more rehearsing after the opening-night performance I saw. On a positive note, the saxophone section and the cymbal player imitated the 1920s jazz sound rather well. The jazz version of the Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky-based “Nutty Nutcracker” in a speakeasy was a particularly good moment for the orchestra.  

We segue from “Millie” to another “thoroughly modern musical” of the early 2000s, namely “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” playing through May 12 at the Bowie Playhouse at White Marsh Park. Like “Millie,” “Scoundrels” is based on an earlier film of the same name from 1988, which in turn was inspired by the 1964 film “Bedtime Story” starring David Niven, who is referenced in the song lyrics. The plot revolves around two confidence men (one debonair, one coarse) swindling rich women at hotels on the French Riviera. Brian Binney and Shane Conrad, the actors who play these two “dirty rotten scoundrels,” have excellent chemistry.

One element from the 1988 film has been developed further: a romance develops between the corrupt police inspector and one of the wealthy American socialites, all under a paper moon. This served as a nice contrast to a story about crime and confidence man. There are reminders of earlier musicals, as American socialite Jolene Oakes from Oklahoma (played to the hilt by Rowena Winkler) dresses and shoots expertly like Annie Oakley in “Annie Get Your Gun!” The clothing styles and Latin-jazz music stylistics are also more the world of 1964 than either 1988 or 2018.

Yet like “Millie,” this musical – despite retro trappings – is thoroughly modern, thoroughly 2018 in its cynicism: The “dirty rotten scoundrels” go unpunished at the end of the play, prosper and even exclaim “What a blast!” I was a little disappointed that the music for the show was recorded, but after “Millie,” I realized this might assure the music has a more even quality to it. In “Scoundrels,” the choreography might need a little work in one or two scenes.

Finally, one aspect I enjoy in community theater is local or topical references, as when in this production one of the ladies “being taken for a ride” by the “dirty rotten scoundrels,” quips, “I have worked in community theater before – perhaps I can be of help!”

Both productions – “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” in Bowie and “Thoroughly Modern Millie” in Reston – prove musical theater can be thoroughly modern while harking back to the time-honored traditions of American musicals of the past.


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