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THEATER

Toward a More Dapper Flapper

'Millie' has been thoroughly reworked with an eye to Broadway--but there have been problems.

October 15, 2000|DARYL H. MILLER | Daryl H. Miller is a Los Angeles-based entertainment reporter

LA JOLLA — Standing around a piano, singers harmonize on the bouncy title song from the 1967 movie musical "Thoroughly Modern Millie."

As the song reaches its peak, the lyric "I'm changing and how" ricochets down the hallway outside of the rehearsal rooms where a new stage version of the musical is being readied. In this bustling warren of activity, the words sound like a motto not just for the story's 1920s-era heroine, who wants to reinvent herself as a modern woman, but for the radically reworked show itself.

Only four songs remain from the movie, and much of the story has been rewritten, especially parts that perpetuated racial stereotypes.

Other changes--altogether unplanned--began to occur as the show approached its originally scheduled opening today at the La Jolla Playhouse. On Sept. 22, lead actress Erin Dilly was replaced by her understudy, Sutton Foster, as preview performances loomed just a week and a half away. Shortly thereafter, the first preview performance, scheduled for Oct. 3, was canceled to allow more time for the show's complex technical elements to jell. But technical issues continued to plague the production, which resulted in the cancellation of weekend previews after an Oct. 6 preview was performed largely as a concert reading. The musical now is set to open on Oct. 22.

"I think that anyone who spends his or her time trying to make a new musical has to be a little crazy," says Michael Mayer, the show's director. "But as the saying goes: It's crazy, but it just might work."

Many people are watching to see whether it does, indeed, work. New musicals are so costly nowadays that relatively few make it this far. "Millie," however, has producers--including Whoopi Goldberg and Fox Theatricals, a Chicago-based enterprise that has backed such shows as "Jekyll & Hyde" and "Death of a Salesman"--waiting in the wings to take it to Broadway. Though no New York opening date has been set, a successful launch in La Jolla would go a long way toward making that happen.

Meanwhile, La Jolla Playhouse has thrown its name and considerable developmental resources behind the show, as well as staking nearly $1 million of the world premiere's budgeted $1.6-million cost. (The potential Broadway producers provided the rest.)

Whereas the movie could bank on the star power of Julie Andrews, Mary Tyler Moore and Carol Channing, the stage version is populated with people who, for the most part, are still working their way toward stardom.

Mayer, a hot commodity since his recent New York stagings of "Side Man" and "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," is collaborating with composer Jeanine Tesori, who wrote music for the small musical "Violet," as well as "The First Picture Show," seen at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum last summer.

The third key member of the creative team is co-author and lyricist Dick Scanlan, who got the project rolling in 1993. Before writing this, his first theater piece, Scanlan was an actor best known for portraying Miss Great Plains in the off-Broadway drag romp "Pageant."

Mayer and Scanlan are 40, and Tesori is 38, so all were mere youngsters when the movie came out. A quirky musical comedy, it focused on a young woman (Andrews) who moves to New York City determined to live a modern, liberated life while all around her other single young women are being spirited from their boarding-house rooms and sold into white slavery.

In La Jolla, Pat Carroll, a veteran of television ("Caesar's Hour"), stage ("Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein") and film (Disney's "The Little Mermaid"), plays the comically malevolent boarding-house operator and white slaver Mrs. Meers.

Foster, who assumed the title role from Dilly, played Eponine in the tour of "Les Miserables" that recently passed through Los Angeles and San Diego, and Sarah Uriarte Berry, who portrays Millie's friend Miss Dorothy, played Julie Jordan in the national tour of "Carousel" and the title character in Tesori's "Violet" at Laguna Playhouse last year.

The departure of Dilly, who was seen in Los Angeles earlier this year as the female lead in "Martin Guerre," came about after "a very long conversation that was mutually respectful and loving," Mayer says. "I love Erin; I think she's great, [but] this just wasn't going to happen this time around. I hope I'll work with her someday.

"I can't get more specific than that," he adds, explaining that a private conversation, under such circumstances, should remain that way. Dilly's agent did not respond to requests for comment.

An earlier workshop in New York last year featured Kristin Chenoweth in the title role and Bea Arthur as Mrs. Meers. But Chenoweth later bowed out to star in a television sitcom.

As Dilly's understudy, Foster already knew the lines, songs and choreography. Though the departure "came out of nowhere" and left Foster "shocked and surprised and terrified," she says, "I'm just trying to keep perspective on everything and do my job."

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