Thoroughly Modern Millie scores both hits and misses, but is splendidly cast

arts-DianaKaarinainmillie.jpg
Diana Kaarina stars in Thoroughly Modern Millie.

Asian-Canadian actors steal the stage in TUTS' Thoroughly Modern Millie

Theatre Under the Stars at Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park

July 15 to Aug. 22

Tickets $32 to $39,

www.tuts.ca

Falling in love is one of the most wonderful things in life.  There's lots of “falling in love” in the Thoroughly Modern Millie production by Theatre Under the Stars.  This makes it a wonderful choice to see with a date.

Diana Kaarina is wonderful as the title character Millie Dumount, who hops off a bus from Kansas and makes her way in New York City.  Set in 1922, Millie decides to find a rich husband, by seducing her boss.  Trouble is, first she has to get a job, and a place to live.. 

Millie settles in at the Hotel Priscilla, a place for young women.  It's on the wrong side of 42nd St., and run by the very strange Mrs. Meers – who may be Chinese or not.  Millie has a series of adventures that include getting a job as a stenographer, going to a speakeasy during prohibition, getting arrested, and going to a fabulous party in the penthouse suite of socialite Muzzy van Hossmere.

Everything about this musical is campy, and over the top.  The music is a pastiche of well-known melodies from other productions.  The plot contains misplaced identities, misunderstood intentions, star-crossed lovers, and a kidnapping.  But the wonderful dancing and singing numbers make you forget that everything seems cliched.  Indeed, Thoroughly Modern Millie is designed to pay homage to old musicals, with tongue-in-cheek fun.

Diana Kaarina brings a lot of experience to this production.  She created the role of Miss Dorothy Brown (Millie's BFF) for the First National tour of Thoroughly Modern Millie (2003).  Kaarina brings lots of Broadway experience, having been the closing Eponine in Les Miserables (2003) and also playing roles in Rent and The Phantom of the Opera.

Kaarina brings a touching humaness to the character of Millie.  She isn't just the talk-talking gold digger who wants to marry her boss, but she also cares for her friends and is willing to make sacrifices.

All the lead roles are played well.  Meaghan Anderssen plays the ditzy Miss Dorothy Brown with great comic aplomb, which she did so very well in last year's TUTS production of Annie Get Your Gun.

Danny Balkwill plays Jimmy Smith, the poor but dashing young son of a gardener.  Audience members might recognize him as one of the competitors in Canadian Idol. 

Seth Drabinsky plays Trevor Graydon, the boss that Millie wants to marry.  Drabinsky excells in elocution, as he sings “The Speed Test” which is a Gilbert & Sullivan parody, complete with Busby Berkeley styled dancing.  Wow!

I didn't expect to see Asian-Canadian actors or Asian characters in
Thoroughly Modern Millie.  But it was there in subtle ways… and not
so subtle ways.  The program points out that lead actor Diana Kaarina is Half -Finnish and Half-Chinese. Either way, she is still a beauty, similar to Smallville actor Kristin Kreuk who ancestry is Half-Dutch/Half-Chinese.

The subplot involves the character of Mrs. Meers who runs the Hotel Priscilla, and also employs two Chinese henchmen for a side business of kidnapping.  Sarah Rodgers is over the top, as Mrs. Meers – so highly unbelievable character, that she can only exist in a musical.  Aaron Lau and Daeyoung Danny Kim play the characters of Ching Ho and Bun Foo.  They strive to make the characters realistic, speaking in only Chinese, and also performing some martial arts moves on stage.

While I found it refreshing to see Asian actors playing authentic Chinese characters speaking good Chinese, without being traditionally stereotyped. The stereotypes still persisted in other ways.

Racial stereotypes of Chinese in Thoroughly Modern Millie

I was shocked
that this musical contained lots of out-dated Chinese stereotypes including:
a Chinese laundry, kidnapping for white slavery, bad Chinese accents,
and a female actor in “white face” playing a white woman masquerading
as a Chinese woman. Much less culturally sensitive than Robert Downey
Jr playing a black man in Tropic Thunder

Part
of the sub-plot is that white girls are sold into white slavery and
shipped off to China, by the character of Mrs. Meers, a white woman dressed up as a Chinese woman –
who doesn't even have a proper Chinese accent – She keeps
mis-prounouncing her “L's” as “R's”

She keeps saying things like “Ssssso saaaad, to be arrrr arrrrone in dis worrrrld”

I realize that this is supposed to be a fun frothy romp, and every character is stereotyped to extreme measures…

Actual
Asian ethnic actors play the Asian roles and do NOT speak in bad
Chinese accents – but actually in good Cantonese.  The play makes fun
of the stereotypes…

But I still felt uncomfortable watching
the perpetuation of racist stereotypes in this way.  There are many
people in today's audience who don't realize the origins of such
stereotypes, nor the harm that was caused over decades of racism.

Check out what the Asian American theatre review had to say about the
two Chinese henchmen, singing “Mammy” in Chinese – originally sung by
Al Jolson, wearing a “black face” when he played a black man on stage.
http://www.aatrevue.com/Old/Millie.html

The original movie was made in 1967 starring Julie Andrews and Mary
Tyler Moore. Japanese-American actor comics Jack Soo and Pat Morita
played the Chinese henchmen. The Broadway musical debuted in 2002, with
the roles of the Chinese henchmen expanded. They only speak in proper
Chinese. It's the white actress playing a white woman who disguises Read Moreherself
as a pastiche of Asian stereotypes and accents. The purpose was to
“cleverly” make fun of racial stereotypes. Almost every character is
stereotyped to extremes in this post-modern Broadway musical.

It's
arguable that the perpetuation of stereotypes in any form is still
de-humanizing and destructive OR have we come far enough that we should
be able to recognize such stereotypes for what they are, and be able to
laugh at the stupidity and ridiculousness of the people who perpetuate
them?

The best use of “Clever” parodying of racial stereotypes was in Marty
Chan's “Mom, Dad, I'm Living With A White Girl.” The stereotypes take
place in the main character's dream about him mother and father
becoming a dragon lady and her loyal henchman. In this case, the
context is about racial and cultural stereotypes, and easily understood
by the Read Moreaudience.

But
in Millie, while the 2 Chinese characters are played very straight and
respectful, speaking in good cantonese, and humourously holding up
sheets of laundry for a clever display of “subtitles” – The fact
remains that they are still Chinese laundry workers, part of a “white
slavery” kidnapping operation.

The character of Mrs. Henessey
is still a white woman pretending to be Asian, by wearing a “painted
face”, speaking mixed up Asian accent, and perpetuating stereotypes.  Check out youtube portrayals of Mrs. Meers.
http://www.youtube.com/results?feature=moby&search_query=thoroughly+modern+millie+they+don%27t+know&search_type=&aq=0&oq=thoroughly+modern+millie+they+d

Otherwise – the cast is GREAT!
And
the lead who plays the title character Millie Dumont is Broadway
veteran, Vancouver born Diana Kaarina, half-Chinese and half-Finnish.

Other reviews

Vancouver Sun review: Millie shines in a show burdened by too much business

Georgia Straight: Thoroughly Modern Millie full of relentless enthusiasm

Gay Vancouver Review: Thoroughly Modern Millie is throughouly enjoyable | Theatre

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