BWW Review: Kylie Arseneau Was Born to Play Millie in THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE at the River Ridge Center for the Arts
Kylie Arseneau will be a senior at River Ridge High School this upcoming year. The young actress has been stellar in the various productions I've seen her grace over the years, including one of the Silly Girls in last spring's Beauty and the Beast, a performance that earned her and her fellow Silly Girls a special award for Broadway Star of the Future. I also remember when my middle school students pointed out that she, in a smaller role in last year's Oliver!, was one of the two or three best in the entire cast. But Ms. Arseneau has never had that title role or that spotlight moment, where she's center stage and owning a show as its lead.
That is, until now.
As witnessed by many last weekend at the River Ridge Center for the Arts summer camp production, Ms. Arseneau as Millie Dillmount in THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE, JR. was born to play the title role. I overheard someone say after it, "That's one of the best high school performances I've ever seen." She hits A+ vocals and is a commanding presence on the stage. She's always in the moment, always in character, reacting to the zaniness around her (at one point a thief even steals one of her shoes), and making Millie's wild and crazy choices make sense. At one moment in the performance that I saw, Millie carried her friend's suitcases, and one of the suitcases accidentally opened up and showed us that there was nothing inside of it. Major mistake, right? Not with Ms. Arseneau onstage to save the day. "You're a light packer," she improvised, and the audience went wild.
Her "Gimme Gimme," a diva's belting classic, caused good bumps while her yearning "Jimmy" showcased a vulnerability difficult in someone so young. She runs the entire emotional gamut here. You get a feeling that the musical plants itself upon Millie's shoulders and lets her carry the show off to victory. And Ms. Arseneau is certainly up to the task and does so with aplomb.
Fun as it is, THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE, centered around a young lady from the Midwest looking for love in New York City during the Roaring Twenties, is an odd show. It started off as a so-so 1967 movie starring Julie Andrews and Mary Tyler Moore, and then became a Broadway tap-dancing sensation that turned Sutton Foster into a star in 2002. And the Junior Version, as performed here, is the oddest of all the versions. MTI has cut the fourth lead (Muzzy) entirely from the original but kept the white slavery angle as well much of the political incorrectness. And seeing middle and high schoolers as targets of a jokey white slavery ring and indulging in Asian stereotypes may be a bit disconcerting for those unfamiliar with the show. But the musical (book by Richard Morris and lyricist Dick Scanlan, with new music by Jeanine Tesori) sort of answers its nay-sayers with lyrics in the title song: "What we think is chic, unique, and quite adorable/They think is odd and 'Sodom and Gomorrah'-able!"
But it's such a wild ride that you don't have time to think of some of the head-scratching angles of the original; you just allow the strong performances and spot-on direction to whisk your way through it.
The young people in this cast, mostly teens, are quite wonderful overall. As Jimmy, Millie's love interest, Chris Cavazza has never sounded better. Thrown into jail after a speakeasy raid, he dances and croons his way through "What Do I Need with Love," ending the number by diving into the arms of his cellmates. With his impressive acting and singing chops and perfect timing in line delivery, Cavazza provides great support for Ms. Arseneau's Millie and, along with her, is easily the strongest in the cast.
Dylan Odom, hot off his Broadway Star of the Future supporting actor success as Lefou in Beauty and the Beast, steals the show here as well as Trevor Graydon, Millie's boss. He understands the farcical elements of the role, and the ending of his "Speed Test," where he taps in fast motion as he sings in even faster motion, is worth a wow or two. Looking not unlike a compact John Gavin, who originated the role in the 1967 film, he's a blast to watch.
THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE has been under attack of late because, some people claim, it deals with racist stereotypes. There's a school district in New York that even banned the show from ever being performed in their area due to these issues. Where the show ultimately gets away with this is that the character who is being racist and playing into those racist stereotypes is the villain of the show, Mrs. Meers. She's racist; the show is not (two of its heroes are Asian). The worry comes that when she plays the Asian stereotypes--saying her "l's" as "r's" and dressed like an Asian drag queen, complete with Chinese hairsticks--the audience is perhaps giggling for all the wrong reasons. But if you don't mind a bit of political incorrectness in your life, then you will not mind it here.
In this production, as played by the wonderful Isabella Napoli, Meers is deliciously evil, jumping right into that politically incorrect pool and splashing around in it without worry. She's remarkably repugnant, a sort of wicked witch complete with poisoned apple.
Iliana Fotopoulos and Michael Ortiz, the two actors who play Mrs. Meers' Chinese henchmen, Bun Foo and Ching Ho, are incredibly likable with their Chinese dialogue cleverly subtitled. But the audience needs to see the moment that Ortiz's Ching Ho first lays his eyes on Miss Dorothy and falls in love with her for his story arch to work; as it stands here, he's just suddenly in love with her without us seeing the realization on his face.
Ella Freiser is fine as Miss Dorothy, and Lindsey Fabian makes the most in the role of Miss Flannery. Looking like Thomas Dolby in a Yahoo Serious wig (how's that for putting an 80's reference in show set in the 1920's), Fabian is a vocal standout and bursts the show to life whenever she's onstage. All of the Priscilla Girls are strong: Alyssia Luna, Savannah Peyton, Sarah Severinsen, Kaitlyn Knoblach, Karissa Tsakonas, and Emma Zervas. Lana Greene is a standout as the doomed Ethel Peas.
The entire lively ensemble deserves mention as well: Logan Daycock, Ashlynn Johnson, Olivia Maggio, Samantha McMillan, Bailey Odom, Brad Roberts, Alysia Rodriguez, Haylee Smith, Christopher Warren, Sebastian Fares, Alexander Lopez, Grace Martin, Alexa Michael, Savanna Owen, Isabella Rodriguez, Victoria Senior, and Abigail Steadham. The show's big number, "Forget About the Boy," is a tap-extravaganza, brilliantly choreographed and performed, and is as good as it gets.
No show is perfect. This one had some minor sound issues and enunciation issues ("New York horror story" sounded like they said something else, something not so G-rated). There were some pacing lags, unnecessary pauses without music accompaniment, and the ending with the new girl was not made clear. Also, sometimes a few in the ensemble just kind of stood there when it wasn't their lines, with no discernible individual characteristics. And the overture could have been utilized with the cast onstage to make for a more vibrant opening.
But it's such a party-hardy production, beautifully directed by Rick D'Onofrio, who brings the most out of his young actors. And Terri D'Onofrio's choreography is splashy and creative, and the tap-dancing most impressive. Eric Neubauer's set design works quite well, and the backdrops are eye-opening splendid. (And yes, there's even an elevator in it, ingeniously realized.) Terri Rick's costumes exceptionally evoke the times. And Darrell Huling's music direction is superb; the cast's harmonies, in songs like "Long As I'm Here With You," sounded marvelous.
It's hard to believe it took only three weeks to mount the world of Millie Dillmount. This is one fast and furiously entertaining show. Good as all the elements are, without a solid actress as the title character, it might be a nightmarish struggle to sit through. Thankfully, that was not the case this past weekend. With Kylie Arseneau leading the way, THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE, JR. became an absolute Flapper Era dream.