Theater under the stars—al fresco, if you will—has its charms, especially if the air temperature is moderate, the humidity low and the moon full. Add energetic dancing, glorious voices and luscious costumes—well, who could ask for more on a summer's eve?
The wattage emanating from the Light Opera of New Jersey's production of Thoroughly Modern Millie at Pleasant Valley Park in Basking Ridge is bright enough to compete with the starry skies above. Director/Producer Bill Corson has assembled a stellar cast to tell the story of Millie Dillmount, newly arrived in 1920s New York City from Kansas to seek her fortune, with plans to marry her boss for a thoroughly modern reason, wealth, not love. Of course, her best-laid plans go awry when she meets Jimmy Smith, Circle Line tour guide/theater usher, who sweeps her off her feet with a kiss, appears to betray her and then saves their romance with some startling revelations. Along the way, Millie meets a bevy of would-be actresses, a celebrity singer, an insurance executive and his office manager, and uncovers a plot to kidnap girls to be sold into white slavery.
Based on a film of the same name, starring Mary Tyler Moore, Thoroughly Modern Millie features a book by Richard Morris and Dick Scanlon, and sprightly music and lyrics by Jeanne Tesori and Dick Scanlon, respectively. It was produced on Broadway in 2002. This sparkling production onstage in Basking Ridge is a feast for the eye and ears, perfect for the whole family.
Corson has cast a real winner as Millie. Lindsay Dunn (right) exudes star quality in spades; she's destined for big things, I'm sure (watch out, Broadway!). Perky without being cloying, Dunn sings and dances with élan, moving from comedic songs ("The Speed Test") to soulful ballads ("Jimmy"). And, she has a madcap sense of comedic timing that serves the wacky plot well, to boot.
Zack Halko's Jimmy is adorable, and he does very well singing and dancing, whether he's standing on a window ledge or in a jail cell. As Millie's friend Miss Dorothy, Elena Bird's clear soprano soars through the night air, as does her infectious girlish giggle.
And Scott Hart (center) turns in his usual marvelous performance as Trevor Graydon III, boss of the Sincere Trust Insurance Company. He is delicious as he puts Millie through her “stenog” paces, speeding up his dictation until I”t sounds like a Gilbert & Sullivan patter song. And his rendition of "Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life" brings down the house. Jessica Idell (above, left center) is a hoot as the sharp-elbowed office manager Miss Flannery.
Comedic kudos are due four actors. Beth Gleason (center) is fabulous as Mrs. Meers, the pseudo-Chinese proprietress of the Priscilla Hotel. She turns what could be construed as a very un-politically correct character into one of fun, both through her delivery of comic dialogue, terrific singing and ability to perform physical comedy. Matching Gleason is Joanna Hoty Russell as Muzzy Van Houssmere, celebrity chanteuse, who schools Millie in the art of romance. She swans into her penthouse apartment singing a paean to New York (where a nobody can become a somebody) and lights up Café Society in a number with her boys and Millie, extolling the wonders (and benefits) of love.
I have reserved the best for last. Changkuo Hsiesh (above right) and Edward Wang (above, left) are extraordinary as Mrs. Meers' indentured servants, Ching Ho and his brother Bun Foo, who do her bidding in return for being able to bring their aged mother to America from Hong Kong. They speak their lines in real Chinese, not pidgin, which would demean the characters (translations are projected on a screen off to the side). They even get their own number, "Muquin (Room Service)," which they perform with Gleason. She is a riot when she "speaks" Chinese.
This production offers other pleasures, as well. Jill Cookingham has choreographed a series of lively and clever numbers nimbly performed by the large chorus. Clifford Parrish conducts an eight-piece orchestra that accompanies the cast without overpowering them (it also helps that the singers are miked). Tom Donelan and Jerry Moses have designed a set that is not only evocative but can be moved on and offstage fluidly. Lauran Corson and Mary LeGrow have assembled a magnificent array of color-coordinated period costumes (mostly from Scaramouche Costumes; above), that are a feast for the eyes. Fashionistas, take note! Sound by Troy DeLorenzo and Finn Malone, and lighting by Aaron Levine complete the atmospheric effect.
In 2011, Lindsay Dunn was nominated by Paper Mill Playhouse for her appearance as Millie in Wallkyll Valley High School's production of Thoroughly Modern Millie. Thank you to Bill Corson and the Light Opera of New Jersey for presenting Dunn to the public at large and surrounding her with a brilliant cast to bring the play to life in the hills of Somerset County. It is a real musical theater treat that is not to be missed.
Thoroughly Modern Millie will give its final performances this weekend at 8 PM in Pleasant Valley Park on Valley Road (just west of the Lyons V.A. Hospital) in Basking Ridge. Admission is free. Just bring the kids, a chair, a picnic, some snacks and drinks, then sit back and enjoy a marvelous production.
For more information, visit www.lightoperaofnewjersey.org online.