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Working hard at being silly

debuts at the Civic July 25

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


Even by the screwball standards of most musical comedies, Thoroughly Modern Millie stands apart in terms of sheer goofiness.

But that’s what makes it such a great show, explains Harvey Cocks, director of the Fort Wayne Civic Theater’s production of Thoroughly Modern Millie, which begins its three weekend run on July 25. “This one is just pure escapism,” he says. “You just escape into the fun of it.”

The year is 1922, and small town Kansas girl Millie Dillmount has come to New York with the goal of marrying a rich guy. “I like Millie because she has drive, she’s determined,” says actress Jessica Butler, who plays Millie. “She has a good heart, and she wants to do good things, but she’s out there making things happen. One of her lines is ‘not for me, I’m a modern/ no more waiting for my ship to come in, I went and found it’. That line says a lot about her.”

Millie takes a room at the seedy Hotel Priscilla, run by the bizarre Mrs. Meers. Mrs. Meers’ side business is slavery. “She always hopes one of the women is an orphan, because she’s connected to a slavery ring,” says Cocks. “If they come in and announce they’re orphans, she says ‘oh, how sad to be in the world alone.’ Then she sticks them with a hypodermic needle.”

Assisting her in this diabolic scheme are her two Chinese henchmen, who need to go along with the plan so they can bring their elderly mother over to the U.S. The two henchmen, played by Ben Wedler and Gary Lanier, have only one line of dialogue in English. “They sing ‘Mammy,’ the old Jolson number, except it’s all in Chinese,” says Cocks.

Meanwhile, Millie is trying to work her wiles on her boss Trevor Graydon (David Boggs), fending off the romantic advances of nice-but-poor paper-clip salesman Jimmy Smith (Jeff Salisbury), and getting involved with other characters like innocent aspiring actress Dorothy Brown (Megan Meyer) and cabaret singer/heiress Muzzy van Hossmere (Julia Goodall). All that, and cameos by George Gershwin and Dorothy Parker, too.

Like the best old-time movie serials or melodramas, Thoroughly Modern Millie goes through the spectrum of inspired flips and twists before everyone is with who they should be and all ends up right with the world. And of course, all the silliness is part of the point. “It is pure entertainment,” Cocks says. “People don’t have to worry about anything or try to figure out what they’re talking about up there. It’s sheer delight. It may be silly, but it’s an extremely entertaining show.”

Thoroughly Modern Millie began life as a movie in 1967 and made its stage debut in 2002, winning a Tony for Best Musical. Cocks saw the show when he was in New York a few years ago and fell for it immediately. “I’m the meanest critic in the world when I go to see a Broadway show,” he says. “I’m sitting there thinking, ‘okay, prove it to me!’ I rarely laugh in the theater. But I thoroughly enjoyed that show.”

What hooked him, he says, was that the performers seemed to be having a great time on stage. That’s the key to a show like Thoroughly Modern Millie: if the cast is having a good time, the audience will, too.

Of course, making the on-stage lunacy look effortless takes a lot of work, especially in a show like Thoroughly Modern Millie. Harvey Cocks, who for most of the year is the director of Fort Wayne Youtheatre but takes on directing duties at the Civic for their summer musical, says musicals usually require a lot of attention to detail anyway. Thoroughly Modern Millie is just a bit more challenging since it features 26 musical numbers, more than any other musical Cocks has been involved in (and, with practically his entire lifetime spent in the theater, he has been involved in all the biggies), and an ensemble cast of 36. That’s a lot of signing and dancing. “The dance is tap-dancing. You don’t find a lot of tappers these days,” he says. “Dawn Prentice, who is not only the choreographer but is also playing a major role (she plays Miss Flannery, the office manager), has had to teach people how to tap-dance, which is wonderful to watch. Many of them are dancers anyway, and if you learn to time-step, you can do any kind of tap dancing you want.”

Still, Cocks says his job has been pretty easy, thanks to the cast. “They are such creative people themselves. Give them a word or an idea and they just run with it.”

Jessica Butler, who played Audrey (the woman, not the plant) in the Civic’s production of Little Shop of Horrors last fall, says the cast is taking the idea of having fun very seriously. Nine members of the cast have won Anthony Awards, the Civic’s annual theater awards, including Jeff Salisbury (who plays Jimmy Smith) and Megan Meyer (Dorothy Brown). “The cast is chock full of talented people,” Butler says. “It’s a fun show. It’s very much theater for entertainment, though there’s a little bit of a life lesson, that if you want something bad enough, go out and get it, but be careful what you wish for. Mostly though, it’s just fun. The music is amazing, the costumes are beautiful, and the sets are fantastic.”

The Fort Wayne Civic Theatre presents Thoroughly Modern Millie
Arts United Center
303 East Main Street
Friday and Saturday, July 25 and 26 at 8 pm; Sunday July 27 at 2 pm
Friday and Saturday, August 1 and August 2 at 8 pm; Sunday August 3 at 2 pm
Friday and Saturday August 8 and August 9 at 8 pm; Sunday August 10 at 2 pm.
Tickets: $24 adults; $16 ages 23 and under; $20 seniors (for Sunday matinees).
Box Office: (260) 424.5220 or online: www.fwcivic.org

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©2018 Fort Wayne Reader. All rights Reserved.