STONEHAM — At a moment when we’ve been all too focused on events unfolding in the real world, the Stoneham Theatre’s “Thoroughly Modern Millie” is a wonderfully entertaining immersion into escapism. Based on the 1967 movie starring Julie Andrews, the 2002 musical is loaded with theater clichés — which didn’t stop it from being a Tony Award-winning Broadway hit. This production, likewise, quickly wins the audience over, thanks to performances that are both sincere and superb.
Director and choreographer Ilyse Robbins knows the focus needs to be on the singing and dancing, and, wow, does her company deliver. From the opening number to the rousing finale, this cast of 20 performs as a unit, with crisp precision and seemingly heartfelt enthusiasm. Robbins’s choreography builds on variations on the Charleston, suggesting the carefree optimism of the Roaring Twenties, when the action is set.
The plot, with all its goofy twists, serves simply to connect the dots of song and dance. It follows Millie Dillmount (Ephie Aardema), a young woman fresh off the bus from Salinas, Kan., eager to be “thoroughly modern” by marrying a rich man. She stays in the Hotel Priscilla, where girls without families vanish after the proprietor, Mrs. Meers (Robert Saoud, in a brilliant bit of gender-bending casting), consoles them with green tea. Millie — helped by her new friend Miss Dorothy (Stephanie Granade) and by Jimmy Smith (Noah Zachary), a young man she falls for despite his apparent lack of funds — gets to the bottom of the mysterious disappearances, and love triumphs.
Robbins has gathered some extraordinary talent for this production, starting with Aardema and including the entire tap-dancing ensemble. Aardema has powerful pipes but never overdoes it, setting the tone and tempo for Act 1 with the opening number, “Not for the Life of Me,” and for the show’s second half with “Forget About the Boy” at the top of Act 2.
Aardema, who portrays Millie with sincere, unadorned determination, is perfectly matched with Zachary. As Jimmy, he is sweet and unpretentious, and his chemistry with Aardema is clear.
Andrew Giordano is hilarious as Mr. Trevor Graydon, Millie’s meticulously demanding boss, who teams up with Granade’s wide-eyed Miss Dorothy for a gloriously operatic “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life” that is as funny as it is musically thrilling. And while Mrs. Meers is written as a ridiculously offensive Asian stereotype, Saoud, comically, turns the slur into just another costume to hide behind.
Kathy St. George — any production’s secret weapon, since no one can sell a song the way she does — here plays Muzzy Van Hossmere, a onetime chorus girl who married well and continues to tour the world as a beloved chanteuse. Whenever St. George takes the stage, it’s impossible to look anywhere else.
All of these elements, plus the ability of Robbins and musical director Jim Rice to keep the action moving at just the right swift pace, make this “Millie” thoroughly enjoyable.