"Thoroughly Modern Millie" feels modern -- really

Brian Mackey

Edward and Leigh Ann Smith knew they wanted to direct “Thoroughly Modern Millie” the first time they saw it.

In New York City.

The week it won six Tony Awards.

“It’s a delightful show, and you just fall in love with it the minute you see it,” Leigh Ann Smith said. “It’s so silly and funny, and it’s like an old-fashioned musical … it’s all-singing, all-dancing, all the time.”

The Smiths are co-directing Springfield Theatre Centre’s production of “Millie,” which begins a six-show run Friday at the Hoogland Center for the Arts.

In an interview before a dress rehearsal earlier this week, Edward Smith said the show was set in 1922, at the height of the Jazz Age. Leigh Ann added that “Millie” also has a modern sensibility: “It doesn’t feel old-timey,” she said.

Millie Dillmount is a small-town girl who moves to New York City looking for a job and a boss she can marry for his money.

When her purse gets stolen, she enlists the help of Jimmy Smith, a consummately cool New Yorker. This being a musical, comic adventures ensue.

Millie sees herself as a “modern” girl, albeit one seen through the prism of the 1960s. That’s when Julie Andrews originated the role on the silver screen with Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Channing and James Fox. The musical did not make its way to Broadway for another 35 years, opening in 2002. It was nominated for 11 Tony Awards and won six, including best musical, best orchestration and best choreographer.

“Once you get hooked, it just takes you well along with it. It’s very easy to follow as far as plot line,” Edward Smith said.

As with most such shows, all cast members and most of the crew are volunteers; only the eight-member orchestra is paid.

Morgan Fishburn, who plays Millie, said one of her biggest challenges has been playing a tomboy.

“I’m the total opposite of a tomboy,” said Fishburn, 22, a fashion merchandising student at Illinois State University. “It’s fun and different.”

Fishburn said she loves the way the character of Millie grows during the show.

“She’s kind of tough, like, ‘I’m going to do this on my own, with or without anybody’s help.’ And then she kind of realizes that she can be a little bit vulnerable and let somebody into her life,” Fishburn said.

Matthew Vala, 23, who teaches music and directs three choirs at Calvary Academy, plays the role of Jimmy.

Nothing bothers Jimmy, Vala said, until Millie trips him in order to enlist his help in recovering her purse. She also introduces him to the unusual phenomenon of a woman standing up for herself.

“In the 1920s, that wouldn’t happen — a woman standing up to a man. It’s sort of a cat-and-mouse challenge throughout the whole show,” Vala said.

“I think the great thing about this show is it’s just so big, with all the dances and the comedy. But then Jimmy and Millie give you this very small, intimate love story that’s sort of tangled in between everything. It gives you the best of the whole theater world,” Vala said.

Fishburn and Vala both praised the energy level of the cast.

“I think (the audience) will sit through the show and not realize that two, two-and-a-half hours have passed,” Vala said.

Sean Butler plays Trevor Graydon, Millie’s vain and self-centered boss.

The audience needs to pay attention to the fast-paced dialogue, he said, because “every line’s a joke.”

Sara Baltusevich, who plays Miss Dorothy Brown — Millie’s friend and Graydon’s love interest — agreed.

“Very fast-paced comedy,” she said. “Great music, too. I mean, there are no songs that are throwaway songs — you’re going to walk out of there humming them.”

Baltusevich said the dancing was her biggest challenge.

“I was an opera performance major in college,” she said.

Butler agreed that the Broadway-style choreography was taxing, but the hardest part for him was “trying to become the character.”

Butler, 21, works at an after-school program at Washington Middle School; Baltusevich, 23, teaches music at the Christ the King School.

Dancing is on the minds of a lot of the performers because the Smiths wanted to replicate as much of the Broadway choreography as possible — “probably 85, 90 percent,” Edward Smith said.

Edward and Leigh Ann Smith have been married for 18 years. This is only the third time they have co-directed a show — often he’ll direct and she’ll assist; other times she directs and he designs the sets and lighting. Edward said they met when he cast Leigh Ann in “Oklahoma.”

Every November, the couple makes a pilgrimage to New York City to take in Broadway shows, though they’ve seen so many that they occasionally have to resort to an Off-Broadway production. The plays not only inspire them, but also seem to salve the frustrations of live theater.

“This happens to us every once in a while: When you see professional theater — especially Broadway or London, they’re $42 million productions or what have you — they have mistakes as they go through,” Leigh Ann Smith said.

She seemed to find it heartening to see that mistakes happen at all levels, from community theater to the world’s most professional stages.

When the Smiths went to see “Mary Poppins” in London, Bert (the chimney sweep played by Dick Van Dyke in the movie version) was supposed to be hooked to a wire for an aerial scene in which he danced all around the proscenium, the arch that frames the stage. But the hook didn’t catch and dangled empty throughout the number.

“I leaned over and said, ‘I think somebody just lost their job,’” Leigh Ann said.

“I think you’re right,” Edward replied.

Brian Mackey can be reached or (217) 747-9587.

Thoroughly Modern Millie

Presented by the Springfield Theatre Centre

* When

8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and Oct. 17 and 19; 2 p.m. Sunday and Oct. 19

* Where

Hoogland Center for the Arts, 420 S. Sixth St.

* Tickets

$13 adults, $12 seniors and children; available at the Hoogland Center box office, by calling 523-2787 and at