Old Things Considered

The unkindest thing one can say about the stage version is that it looks like the fulfillment of Ross Hunter's dream, and it's hard to imagine its creators taking that as their goal. Disconnected and frenetic, Michael Mayer's staging looks alternately like an attempt to put the 1920s on MTV or a misguided stab at an Expressionist musical. (It periodically reminded me of Lincoln Center's ill-fated effort, many years ago, to turn Beggar on Horseback into a quasi-Busby Berkeley musical.) Foster's Millie is supposed to be a small-town girl newly arrived in Manhattan; she starts the opening number and within seconds has the entire chorus singing and dancing in unison with her; so much for dramatic tension. The villains, in contrast, have been politically corrected with elaborate behavioral excuses that make not an ounce of sense. Where an infusion of fresh songs might have flooded out the overall sense of secondhandness, the score is now even pastichier, if that's a word, than in the film, extending back to Gilbert & Sullivan and Victor Herbert. In 2002, the hit tune of the latest new musical is "I'm Falling in Love With Someone," which is garishly burlesqued in the staging but makes its effect anyway. It's been in my head ever since. Of course, I learned it in childhood (it was a favorite of my grandmother's), so it was already stored there: Representation, not experience, reminded me of it. Still and all, I'd rather experience it sung straight in Naughty Marietta, where it belongs, than kidded in an '02 show based on a '60s movie cloning a '50s show spoofing the '20s. Putting all those decades of quote marks around everything just wears me out.


Fortunately, the tonic to pick me up was near at hand: Morning's at Seven is 64 years old; most of its current cast is even older. It was a flop when first performed; Vivian Matalon's revival 20 years ago gave it a better reputation, which Daniel Sullivan's new production confirms. Matalon's rendition, which didn't scant the play's dark side, was brighter and more eccentrically funny; I remember howling with laughter at the frazzled pathos with which Nancy Marchand greeted Elizabeth Wilson's skittish histrionics. Sullivan's soberer reading doesn't shirk the laughter, but Elizabeth Franz's intensity (in the role Wilson played) pairs with the pained delicacy of Frances Sternhagen (in Marchand's) to create a different, equally toothsome flavor. Nouvelle cuisine has taught us to relish bitterer tastes than we did in 1981.

Piper Laurie and Buck Henry in Morning's at Seven: dysfunctional family values
photo: Joan Marcus
Piper Laurie and Buck Henry in Morning's at Seven: dysfunctional family values

Details

Thoroughly Modern Millie
By Richard Morris and Dick Scanlan,
music by Jeanine Tesori and others
Marquis Theatre
Broadway and 45th Street
212-301-4100

Morning's At Seven
By Paul Osborn
Lyceum Theatre
Broadway and 45th Street
212-239-6200

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Food metaphors seem in order: An extended WASP joke about the incomprehensibility of love (and sex) among four sisters, the spouses of three, and one distressingly mother-bound offspring, Paul Osborn's comedy is as culinary as theater gets. And it's a salutary reminder of how much wisdom, skill, and humanity you can find in a commercial dish served up with care, by chefs whose sense of honor is part of their technical skill. Sullivan's roster overall is actually stronger than Matalon's, though the latter's graceful staging had the added joy of discovery (and a third memorable performance, by David Rounds, to match Marchand and Wilson). Estelle Parsons and Piper Laurie here, the latter in especially fine fettle, are better than their predecessors, and so is everyone on the male side of the cast list, with the arguable exception of Steven Tobolowsky, whose dear dolt of a son is first-rate work. The trouble is that Rounds seemed to do it without working.

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