Call it Millie's First Law: A lousy movie usually makes a lousy musical. I've named it after "Thoroughly Modern Millie" because the show proves the rule. The stage version is not the total mess the unwatchable 1967 movie was, but it is a charmless exercise nevertheless, a musical so robotic it could be operated by remote control.
It won the Tony, you say. I've got news for you: 1972, "Two Gentlemen of Verona"; 1986, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood." Which leads me to Millie's Second Law: The Tonys have off years.
Millie (Darcie Roberts), center, and friends camp it up in "Thoroughly Modern Millie."
"Thoroughly Modern Millie" is in the Kennedy Center Opera House until the day after Christmas. The show has been on the road for a spell: This same production, with the same Millie, Darcie Roberts, played a week at Wolf Trap in the summer of '03. It's back because the Kennedy Center scrubbed a plan to originate a new "Bye Bye Birdie" here and needed something else suitably sanitized for the holidays. The road ain't exactly an eight-lane superhighway of theatrical wonderment these days. Et voilà: "Millie."
Look, not every production that is booked by the nation's premier palace of the arts can be "Shear Madness." Lord knows, an achievement of that caliber comes around only once every 17 years. (Strike that: A work of that caliber seems to hang around at the Kennedy Center every day for 17 years.)
What I'm trying to say is that fluff is entitled to a place at the table, too, and the achievement of "Millie" is that you can see how hard its creators toiled to make it insignificant. It's an attempt, sort of, at a parody of the old-style musicals of the '20s and '30s, the sort jerry-built out of cheerful songs, convoluted plots, elaborate tap demonstrations and derogatory stereotypes. The screwball plot, taken from the movie, concerns a Kansas-born girl of the Roaring '20s and her efforts to lay siege to Manhattan until she can hook a rich man. (I'm still waiting for someone to explain what was modern about that.) Little does she know her landlady, Mrs. Meers (Pamela Hamill), is a failed actress posing as a Chinese matron who is drugging orphaned young women and selling them into "white slavery." We are supposed to wink, of course, at this offensive tabloid terminology.
What makes a contemporary sendup of this dated genre worth doing is never addressed in the wooden book by Dick Scanlan and the late Richard Morris (he also wrote the screenplay). Jeanine Tesori's music, with lyrics by Scanlan, is far more skillful -- some of the songs are from the movie and other sources -- and the Tesori number that opens the second act, "Forget About the Boy," is both clever and the evening's best. It's a measure of how thin the show is, however, that you can count the winning gags on three fingers: 1. The Chinese subtitles. 2. The tap-dancing secretaries. 3. The window ledge duet.
These intermittent spasms of inspiration are isolated events in director Michael Mayer's steamroller approach to the material. From Roberts on down, the actors have no chance, playing such shallow characters in such a relentlessly campy fashion. The actresses playing Millie's friends are so "on" you can feel their desperate attempts to be noticed. Hamill's plight is more poignant: All evening her performance consists of pushing and pushing the broken-English joke, uttering lines like, "My condorences to your famiree." ("Avenue Q," which employs a hipper style of satire at the expense of racism, uses this same gimmick to much more amusing effect.)
The "Millie" cast has largely turned over since Wolf Trap, but David Gallo's scenery retains the tacky look of an economical traveling production. Daniel May, playing Ching Ho, one of Mrs. Meers's reluctant partners in crime, is one of the few standouts; Stephanie Pope, portraying the socialite Muzzy Van Hossmere, has presence and a fine set of pipes. As written, Millie is more a song-and-dance machine than flesh and blood; Roberts brings as much showbiz spit and polish as is possible to a punch-the-time-clock kind of assignment.
As the touring "Producers" revealed over the summer and "Movin' Out" is demonstrating now at the National, a road company occasionally rolls into town with something that conveys a notion of the best of Broadway. What "Millie" brings is much more prosaic. We count on the people who run the Kennedy Center to be able to divine the difference.
Thoroughly Modern Millie, new music by Jeanine Tesori; new lyrics by Dick Scanlan; book by Scanlan and Richard Morris. Directed by Michael Mayer. Sets, David Gallo; costumes, Martin Pakledinaz; lighting, Donald Holder; sound, Jon Weston; orchestrations, Doug Besterman and Ralph Burns; choreography, Rob Ashford; music director, Eric Stern. With Anne Warren, Emir Yonzon, Bryan McElroy, Janelle A. Robinson, John Ganun. Approximately 2 hours 30 minutes. Through Dec. 26 at Kennedy Center Opera House. Call 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.