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Two of Broadway's best arrive

'Thoroughly Modern Millie,' 'Mark Twain Tonight!' staged

The hit musical Thoroughly Modern Millie will be staged today through Sunday at the Stranahan Theater.

A caustic sage and a wide-eyed innocent bring two certified Broadway hits to Toledo stages this week.

The Valentine Theatre presents Mark Twain Tonight!, starring Hal Holbrook, for one show at 8 p.m. Saturday, and Theater League opens a six-show run of Thoroughly Modern Millie at 8 tonight in the Stranahan Theater.

In the latter, the title character is played by Alex Ellis, who, in a telephone interview from Little Rock, Ark., sounds as excited about life as her alter ego does on stage.

The play, she says, was inspired by the 1967 movie starring Julie Andrews.

"It's a romantic comedy, and it's really, really fun. The play actually just uses just a little bit of the material from the movie and kind of makes its own thing," Ellis says.

Thoroughly Modern Millie opened on Broadway in April, 2002, and ran for more than 900 performances, winning six Tony Awards, including best musical and best actress.

It centers on Millie Dilmount, who moves from a small town in Kansas to New York City sometime in the 1920s, in search of wealth and security. She gets a job as a typist for an insurance firm, and finds what she thinks she wants in the persona of her boss, Trevor Graydon.

It takes a lot of machinations in the paper-thin plot for Millie to realize that love is more important to her, and Jimmie Smith is the man she really wants.

"It's kind of like The Wizard of Oz," Ellis says. In addition to making some good friends in the city, including one named Dorothy, there's sort of a good witch and a bad witch, the former being Muzzy Van Hossmere, "a very Zsa Zsa-like nightclub singer," and the latter being Mrs. Meers, the owner of a boarding house for single women, who has a hidden agenda.

Jeanine Tesori and Dick Scanlan "only took like two songs from the movie, so all of the music is very new. There are flashy costumes - we actually use some of the original Broadway costumes - and the dance numbers are really fun, real 1920s Charleston, that kind of stuff."

If Millie is living her dream, Ellis is as well. The starring role on the national tour is her first professional job after having graduated from Elon University near Greensboro, N.C., last spring.

The young woman says she could not have chosen a better school to prepare for her career.

"A lot of casting directors and composers and Broadway people come down from New York and give master classes or hold auditions; people from summer stock come to Elon to audition our classes, and the seniors every year get to audition for some casting directors in New York.

"The acting directors gave me some songs and some scenes to learn before I went up to New York [to audition for 'Millie], my voice teacher and my acting coach just sat with me for days and days and we got it down pat."

Ellis says that about 1,000 women auditioned for the female roles in the show, so she didn't know what to expect. "I sang my heart out, and afterwards I was like, if I don't get this, that's OK because I gave them everything I had."

But afterwards, Ellis said she had a sign that she might have gotten the role.

"My mom was there with me, and she was going to treat me to a show and a nice dinner. So we're at Wicked, standing in line, and she had me go get her a Starbucks. I'm walking down 51st Street all by myself. This is New York and there's like nobody else on the street EXCEPT I walk right by Sutton Foster [who won the Tony Award for best actress for Millie]. I just like took it as a sign."

The next morning, she got the call that she had the role.

Although she's been on tour since September, Ellis says she's not tired of the role.

"I love the two hours I'm on stage. I give the audience 120 percent every performance. We all do. This is a great company, we all get along, and we all love the show."

"I can't see how anyone wouldn't.

Thoroughly Modern Millie runs today-Sunday in the Stranahan Theater, 4645 Heatherdowns Blvd. Performances are 8 p.m. today and tomorrow, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $33.50 to $42.50. Information: 419-381-8851.
Mark Twain Tonight!

In 1966, Hal Holbrook won the Tony Award for best actor for portraying Mark Twain in a one-man show conceived and written by him, with help from Twain, of course.

Forty years later, he's still at it. Mark Twain Tonight! opens Saturday in the Valentine Theatre.

In an interview with The Blade in 2001, Holbrook explained that he has no problem keeping the character fresh.

"What I do is select material from Twain that I think has something to say about what's going on today. There's so much of it - a regular gold mine - so there's no problem trying to find some for a commentary," he said.

The show grew out of an honors project at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, from which the Cleveland native graduated in 1948. Holbrook and his first wife, Ruby, created a two-person show depicting several characters, from Shakespeare to Twain. Holbrook later refined it into a one-man show, and Mark Twain Tonight! opened off-Broadway in 1959. He's been playing the character, off and on, ever since, with three visits to Broadway, the most recent being last June.

Not that Holbrook is resting on his laurels. He and his wife, Dixie Carter, just finished a run of the two-person play Southern Comfort in Fort Lauderdale.

Mark Twain Tonight is scheduled at 8 p.m. Saturday in the Valentine Theatre, 400 North Superior St. Tickets are $38 to $59. Seating is extremely limited. Information: 419-242-2787.


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