Student stars thoroughly shine in Thoroughly Modern Millie

COLUMBIA, Mo 11/24/13 (Review) -- There's so much going on in Thoroughly Modern Millie -- nearly two dozen song and dance numbers, three female leads, two male leads, a live orchestra, and some of the funniest straight man/foil work you're likely to see in a big production -- it's hard to imagine any but the most well-heeled Broadway producers pulling it off with aplomb.

And yet, that's exactly what students and teachers at Hickman High School did last night, so much so they gave this writer the best high school musical I've ever seen, and I've seen many, in several US cities.

Virtually pitch-perfect singing and rousing, difficult tap dancing, all set to live orchestration;  glistening, glorious costumes; and minimalist sets that transformed the stage into America at her hopeful best, helped bring the packed house to its feet.
With an adorably big presence and a powerful, evocative singing voice, Nora Hennessy made you fall in love with young Millie Dillmount, who comes to New York City from Salina, Kansas to make her way as a "thoroughly modern" woman during the Roaring Twenties, when women were first entering the work force.

The career-marriage choice looms large.   Will Millie choose love over money?  Happiness over success?  Or can she have it all, especially after losing her scarf, purse, hat and shoe to a mugger?
When she stumbles on a busy sidewalk over handsome but cynical Jimmy Smith (played by Josh Friedrich) her destiny is set.   He sends her to the Hotel Priscilla, where -- for reasons we later learn aren't exactly up-and-up -- hotel proprietor Mrs. Meers (Megan Infield) extends unusually generous credit.

Paul Pepper w/Millie cast
Friedrich and fellow leading man Connor Lake, who plays Millie's first-ever boss Trevor Graydon, are so "in character" you forget you're watching high school students.    Here instead are two young men of the world, urbane, charming, and funny.  
Lake's lilting scene falling in love with Millie's best friend, Dorothy -- Lydia Rautman -- had the audience laughing and cheering.   And when Friedrich's Smith danced gently (and carefully) with Hennessy's Millie on a window ledge overlooking the busy streets, you couldn't help but swoon. 
Rautman plays Dorothy with a sweet, big-hearted earnestness that makes two men -- Graydon and a very unlikely suitor -- fall head over heels for her.   She's the rich girl who decides to cast off her wealth in search of how the other half lives, and when she checks into the Hotel Priscilla, boy does she find out!

Megan Infield plays Mrs. Meers as a canny Chinese version of Japanese-German fashion auteur Edna Mode fromThe Incredibles  (below).  Infield owns the stage in every scene she's in.  Meers is running a kidnapping racket known then as "white slavery" and today as "human trafficking."   To all the orphaned young women who come seeking the American Dream, the devilish proprietress offers generous terms to check them in, then checks them out with a chloroform rag -- and the hilarious help of two Chinese henchmen:  Matthew Neff as Bun Foo and Dylan Hosmer-Quint as Ching Ho.

Though neither actor utters more than a word or two of English (they sing in Mandarin, speak in Cantonese), Neff and Hosmer-Quint delivered the evening's funniest moments.  The two young immigrants struggle between leaving a life of crime and bringing their aging mother over from China, a promise Mrs. Meers hangs over their heads to get them to do her bidding.
Love, as usual, saves the day.  Ching Ho falls madly in love with Dorothy, while "oohs" and "aahs" circled the audience.   "I will save you," from the trafficking Mrs. Meers he tells her, in broken English of the most heart warming kind.  "I ruv you."

Dozens of student set, costume, and makeup artists helped director Sarah Gerling, conductor Denis Swope, choreographer Robin Beach Steinhaus, and technical director Vicki Palmer bring this complex extravaganza to life. 

Complex?  Try a 24-piece orchestra, musically capturing every emotion, while 19 dancers and singers played dynamite backup to Millie's fast-moving action. 
Of course, everything turns out wonderfully in the end.  With her bobbed hair and flapper-style enthusiasm, Millie has danced, sung, laughed, and cried her way to the American Dream -- and the audience couldn't be happier.

"Millie" wrapped a 3-night run Saturday. 

-- Mike Martin for the Columbia Heart Beat