Before winning the Tony Award for Best Musical and Best Score for 'Fun Home', Jeanine Tesori made her mark on Broadway with the 2002 Tony Award-winning hit 'Thoroughly Modern Millie'. Though a rework of the film which starred squeaky clean Julie Andrews as the perky heroine, the musical includes a patchwork score that tells the tale of country girl Millie Dillmount who arrives in the Big Apple in search of a job, a husband and a new haircut.
It's an ambitious move for any fringe producer to recreate a large scale musical in a microscopic pub theatre venue - but it's a move that works...most of the time. A multifunctional reflective set inspired by the Chrysler Building welcomes audiences to the playing space, setting the tone and is used to its full extent throughout, with the central door becoming an office window, an elevator and the home of more quick changes than Mr Benn.
The ensemble of 12 work exceptionally hard throughout to bring this huge musical to life in a meaningful way. The doubling tracks are not always successful - and it shows that the cast haven't been given enough time to work on the many characters they're forced to create on the trot which quickly becomes too much to handle.
The show excels when more people are on stage, and the energy is allowed to rise above a whisper. Tight choreography has clearly been the focus of the staging, with the larger numbers and the tap sections being a delight to watch. This energy falls as soon as the dance sections end and isn't sustained from scene to scene. There are many scenes with just one character on stage, often delivering a show stopping number, but in all cases the cast can't command the small room, and are left to flounder with little-to-no effective direction.
Matthew Iliffe's direction feels weighty and mechanical and shows little character or relationship development and sadly this shows in the acting. There's a lack of organic excitement in any of the book scenes, and even in a full house the jokes continually fell flat. The direction-by-numbers approach stifles the humour and doesn't support the lead actors, for whom acting is certainly the weaker of three skills.
Vocally this is a demanding score for all performers and it is delivered to near perfection throughout. Ensemble numbers have a crisp and controlled delivery, with strong contrasts in voices aiding the overall sound. Chris Guard's excellent reduced band never overshadow the vocals and swell in all the right places, delivering a charming and refreshingly original score that suits both the style and the period.
There's something catatonic about leading lady Francesca Lara Gordon who delivers the goods in terms of vocals, but too often appears glazed over and has zero chemistry with either of her leading men. At times it feels the 'Moderns' of 1922 would be more at home in the Shoreditch of 2015 serving artisan coffee and charging you in Bitcoins as their lethargic sighs don't reflect the vibrant energy of New York City during one of the most exciting periods of history. As leading man Ben Stacey sings well but his acting holds back any chance of investing in the central story. Hindered by a 'Nooo Yooooik' accent, scenes between him and Millie lack any energy and fizzle away.
The show is stolen entirely by Sarah Marie Maxwell as Miss Dorothy who lights up the stage from the first notes of her opening song and holds you until the end. Her strong presence, beautiful voice and consistent characterisation make her the most interesting to watch and you ended up wishing she had the bulk of the score.
On the whole the casting doesn't reflect the appropriate ages and more often than not feels like a student showcase or end of term production - some variation in age would have certainly raised the bar, and that added experience could have lifted the quality of the acting across the board.
The biggest problem with the musical is the handling of the white slavery subplot, headed by pantomime villain Mrs Meers. At times the comedy accent verges on offensive - the conceit of her being in disguise and the variation between her Brooklynese accent isn't established quickly or effectively enough, and as a result her comedy consistently fails to land.
Production wise this a slick and simple delivery that tends to overwork the cast in certain aspects. A never ending parade of joke-shop style wigs cheapen an otherwise professional looking production that excels at the high points, in particular when Sam Spencer Lane's choreography is allowed to take over. With stronger direction and more focus and energy in the book scenes this has the potential to be a thoroughly excellent musical, but for now it remains a thoroughly commendable effort.