Theatre People catches up with Director Lyn Laister and performers Amy Gridley and James Robertson to discuss MLOC's recreation of the Roaring 20s in their upcoming stage adaptation of a classic 1960s musical.

When film director George Roy Hill created what many consider to be one of his greatest directed masterpieces, Thoroughly Modern Millie, in 1967, his intent was to create a film that emphasised an all-important feature: sheer, fast-paced light-hearted fun.  This off-the-wall, zany spoof of the 1920s combined  slap stick, surrealism, humour, musical numbers, romantic comedy, silent film and adventure with a hint of intrigue and action. The unusual blend of elements from various genres struck a chord with critics and audiences alike, making this box office hit one of the 1960s most popular musical films with numerous Academy Awards and Golden Globes nominations.

In 2002 the musical was revived in an onstage adaptation for Broadway that earned similar praise with numerous nominations and awards for 'Best Musical', 'Best Book' and 'Best Original Score'.   

Now MLOC Productions aims to capture the spirit, energy and comedy that made the film and Broadway production such mega-hits, when they present their own version of Thoroughly Modern Millie in Melbourne from June 13-21.

Though this is Director Lyn Laister 's first time working on this musical comedy her enthusiasm for the production has existed since her childhood days of performing musical numbers from the film in her family lounge room. A highly accomplished Director, Choreographer and Performer, Lyn says that she has been inspired by many aspects of the 1920s while working with the artistic team and a cast of 30 diverse and talented performers to capture the essence of the period through costumes, dances and orchestral score.   

“I think that you need to have a sense of fun and adventure to want to step back to 1922”, she says.  “Definitely the fashions of the era and the way the characters are written in the show allow me to re-create an exciting New York setting full of life and optimism”.

While preserving the musical's core themes of love, friendship, self-confidence and following one's heart, Lyn says that she welcomes the challenge of creating a unique adaptation that enhances the romance and comedy in the story.   

“It’s always exciting as a Director to find your way through the dialogue and be inspired by what the cast brings to it”, she explains. “I ask my actors to be genuine, be in the moment and allow themselves to indulge their character in the scenes. I believe that acting through song gives the performance so much more depth and I hope that the audience sees this in our show.  

With musical numbers that trump even those from the 1967 film, Lyn says that the production delivers a few poignant moments, but mostly offers “a lot to laugh about”.

“It has great music, a good dose of comedy and romance and memorable characters. What’s not to love?!”

For lead actress Amy Gridley there's a lot to love about MLOC's current production as she portrays the title character, Millie Dillmount, a young woman who moves to New York City during the  Roaring 20s and adopts the flapper lifestyle with the goal of marrying for wealth rather than love.

Amy says that though the musical is full of strong characters, she considers the role of Millie a  stand out role, with “fantastic songs” and an “interesting, exciting and loveable” personality that always expresses “excitement for new adventures” and refuses to “let anyone get in the way of her dreams and aspiration”.

“Her strength is that she is an independent, confident woman, which was quite a new phenomenon in the 1920s”, explains Amy. “She is desperate to live the modern lifestyle and is very determined to get what she wants. She has a friendly nature but she also learns many things over her journey”.

Having found her love for musical theatre as a child, Amy was just seven-years old when she made her theatrical debut starring as 'Gretel' in Paragon’s The Sound of Music. Many performance opportunities followed, seeing her in various roles that included 'Kim' in Bye Bye Birdie and 'The Cheshire Cat' in Dreamchild as well as  'Catherine' in Pippin and 'Jennifer' in The Witches of Eastwick.

While describing MLOC's production as an extravaganza consisting of “fantastic music, wonderful dance numbers and a beautiful story about staying true to yourself”, Amy says that portraying Millie is an experience far different than her prior stage credits, requiring greater energy and enthusiasm while also expressing motivations that differ from a stereotypical musical heroine.

“Many of the leads I have played before rely on getting 'the man-of-her-dreams' to be happy in the end,” says Amy. “I like that Millie is a strong character on her own. She may have a love story, but it shows that you can find love whilst still being a strong, independent woman”.

Millie's quest to wed into riches is hilariously hindered by her business-minded employer (portrayed by Ash Cooper) who remains comically unaware of her affection and obvious advances; her neighbour (played by Mandie Lee) whose innocence and beauty continually seem to distract Millie's love interests; and her sinister landlady (portrayed by Trish Carr) who operates a white slavery ring from her hotel, carrying out a string of blundered attempts to abduct pretty female tenants. 

Arguably Millie's greatest obstacle to marrying into financial security is her relationship with likeable Jimmy Smith, a paper clip salesman for whom Millie develops real romantic feelings, despite his lack of wealth and portrayed by actor James Robertson in MLOC's Production.

A secondary school drama/history teacher by day, James' diverse body of work incorporates not only musicals but also plays, devised pieces, adaptations and television. James says that working alongside Lyn and Amy has allowed him to develop the complexities of his character, who despite being “young, dapper, enterprising and level-headed” also has the tendency to repress his true feelings.

“I'm at the age where I'm just discovering and coming to terms with my identity and the direction I want my life to go in and I firmly believe that mirrors Jimmy's present state of development”, explains James. 

To ensure a fresh portrayal of Jimmy, James has deliberately avoided viewing the film or any other versions of the show, therefore allowing him to explore his character without “any initial impressions or influences”.

“When developing a role, you'd be surprised where you get sources of inspiration. I try and apply what I observe in people, but also try and react instinctively”, says James. “I invest a great deal of myself in the character to hopefully bring the character to fruition”.

Thoroughly Modern Millie marks James' fifth show with MLOC since he began community theatre in 2007, returning to the company that incited him to pursue his passion for performing. 

With a tradition of producing highly acclaimed musicals since the 1970s, MLOC's cast and crew are hard at work ensuring that they maintain this record and with opening night just on the horizon, James perhaps best sums up what audiences can fully expect from MLOC's Thoroughly Modern Millie: “Unbridled merriment from start to finish”.

MLOC Productions Presents 'Thoroughly Modern Millie' at the Phoenix Theatre, 101 Glenhuntly Rd., Elwood  from June 13 – 21.

To book your tickets please phone 9551 7514 or visit www.mloc.org.au/

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