Flappers delight

1920s musical comedy challenges cast, promises fun

Saturday, June 9, 2007

"Thoroughly Modern Millie"

Lawrence Community Theater presents "Thoroughly Modern Millie," opening June 9.

Director Mary Doveton's assessment of the Lawrence Community Theatre's summer show as "frothy" and "fun" describes what she hopes will be the audience experience.

For at least two of the actors, however, preparing their roles proved less than a bright and breezy task.

Bob Newton and Charles Goolsby play Chinese brothers in "Thoroughly Modern Millie," and the script calls for them to speak in Cantonese and sing in Mandarin.

"Fortunately, I don't have many lines," Newton says.

Even so, the learning curve was steep. Both men listened to a CD of an actor from the Broadway production of the show, who recited the lines in English and then delivered them slowly in Chinese. Afterward, the pair wrote out the lines phonetically, creating their own scripts for rehearsal.

"What I wasn't counting on was how difficult it was to memorize because it doesn't mean anything to me. It isn't words; it's just sounds," Newton says. "There was a time when I thought, 'I'm not going to be able to do this.' But we practiced, and eventually it came around."

Neither he nor Goolsby claims any mastery of the language. But they know enough to conspire with the play's villainess, Mrs. Meers, an out-of-work actress who masquerades as a Chinese woman and runs a hotel as a front for a white slavery ring. The men agree to work as her assistants - doing laundry and kidnapping young women - in exchange for her bringing their mother to New York.

But this is all a shady aside to the play's main storyline, which follows young Millie Dillmount, a girl from Salina, who moves to the city in search of a new life. It's 1922, and the Big Apple is ripe with intrigue. Women are bobbing their hair, wearing short skirts, listening to jazz and entering the work force.

"Her big idea is that she's going to interview bosses and take a job where she can marry her boss," Doveton says. "And, of course, her plans go awry when she meets and falls in love with another guy.

"It's the timelessness of the whole idea that you can't marry for money, that everyone ultimately is looking for true love."

In her search, Millie ends up as a guest at Mrs. Meers' Hotel Priscilla, a rooming house for struggling actresses.

Seedy as it may sound, it's all in good fun. "Millie" is actually a musical comedy. And despite being set in the Roaring '20s, the show, based on a 1967 film starring Julie Andrews and Mary Tyler Moore, premiered on Broadway in 2002, winning six Tony Awards, including Best Musical. It's filled with buoyant dance numbers - from tap to Charleston - and lovely ballads performed by frisky flappers and dashing leading men.

"It's like a classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical that wasn't written by Rodgers and Hammerstein," says Charles Goolsby, who directs plays at Lawrence High School and plays Bob Newton's Chinese brother in "Millie."

He says one of the benefits of landing a smaller role in the show has been having time to watch the rest of the cast in rehearsal.

"It really is some wonderful stuff happening on stage, in terms of the singing and dancing," he says.

The biggest challenge in staging the production, Doveton says, has been navigating the quick transitions between settings as varied as a hotel laundry room to an office to the city-at-large to a nightclub.

"In our little space, we've had to stretch our imaginations to make those scenes possible," Doveton says.

Fortunately, audiences won't have to imagine what Newton and Goolsby, the Chinese brothers, are saying when they rattle off their lines in a foreign tongue. The English translations will be projected on screens.

"There's an introduction on the audio CD from the author, who explains that we are to attempt to deliver the lines as accurately as possible - that the humor does not come from making fun of the language, but rather from delivering it correctly and then having it translated for the audience visually," Newton says.

"I think it's going to be funny. I'm told it's funny from people who've seen the show."