Throughly Modern Millie
Author: Margot Brown | Photographer: Butch Hirsch
In its fall production, Hilton Head Prep brings the Tony award-winning Thoroughly Modern Millie to the Seahawk Cultural Center stage November 6-9, offering a thoroughly entertaining night of musical theatre and tap dancing. Set in the 1920s, the show harkens to an era when women were bobbing their hair, raising their hemlines, entering the workforce, and rewriting the rules of love.
Not only is Thoroughly Modern Millie a zany romantic spoof of the Roaring Twenties, it’s a song and dance filled musical that won an Oscar for Best Original Music Score. Based on the successful 1967 film of the same name, Thoroughly Modern Millie is the comedic tale of a small-town girl, Millie Dillmount (Whitaker Gannon), who comes to the Big Apple in search of a more exciting life. Believing herself to be “thoroughly modern,” she decides that, instead of marrying for love, she is going to marry for money. Her plan starts off well enough when she’s hired by an attractive albeit egotistical man whom she sets her sights on as her primary marriage prospect. However, when she meets a devil-may-care stock boy named Jimmy (Jack Dextraze), her heart gets in the way of her own well-laid plan.
Whitaker Gannon as small-town girl Millie Dillmount, who goes to the big Apple in search of a more exciting life.
While Millie quickly embraces the carefree flapper lifestyle, things go amiss when she checks into a hotel run by a washed up actress-turned-hotelier, Mrs. Meers (Ava Nixon), who secretly plies the wicked trade of drugging unattached tenants and selling them to a couple of Chinese laundry men.
From left to right:Sabina Vaughan as Ruth, Shannon Hegarty as Ethel Peas, Whitaker Gannon as Millie Dilmount, Lily Neary as Gloria
Standing Behind:Ava Nixon as Mrs. Meers
With a cast 31-strong, the fall show is the one of the largest the school has produced in recent years. At the helm is performing arts director Peggy Trecker White, following a successful debut 2013-14 season featuring A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Godspell. Rounding out the production’s dream team is returning musical director Tim Reynolds, with lighting design by Brian Riley, costume design by Kathy McGill and scenic design by Scott Sparr.
To be held at the Seahawk Cultural Center at Hilton Head High School, the show has a one-weekend only run, offering four chances to see this not-to-be-missed production: November 6 and 9 at 7 p.m. plus two convenient weekend matinees, November 8 and 9 at 2 p.m.
Tickets for Thoroughly Modern Millie are available now and can be purchased with a credit card at hhprep.org. Tickets will also be available at the door using cash or check. Prices are $20 for adults; $15 for seniors (60 and older); and $10 for students. For additional ticket information and group rates (15 or more people), contact the Hilton Head Prep Arts Guild at (843) 785-8510.
What: Thoroughly Modern Millie
Who: Presented by Hilton Head Preparatory School
Where: Seahawk Cultural Center at Hilton Head Island High School
When: November 6 & 9 -7:30pm; November 8 & 9 -2pm
Hilton Head Prep senior Whitaker Gannon is not just a profoundly talented artist in many disciplines and mediums, she is also a gifted critic and a true champion of the arts. Already a veteran of numerous stage productions and a few feature films, she is a versatile, expressive and savvy actress. She is also a skilled photographer, dancer, choreographer, singer, poet, journalist, editor and designer. The scope of her abilities is staggering. Indeed, she resembles the exaggerated polymath, Marcy from The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (a character Gannon brilliantly portrayed in a 2012 production of the show).
Gannon has been performing since she was a child. At age 17, she already as an impressive acting résumé, including turns in principle roles in the feature films Untouched and Killing Winston Jones, as well as the leading role in the horror movie The Hollow Oak. Gannon is incredibly dedicated to her craft and eager for creative growth, but she is not dizzied by dreams of celebrity. She labors in the words of Dylan Thomas, “Not for ambition or bread/Or the strut and trade of charms/On the ivory stages/But for the common wages/Of their most secret heart.”
This story is one of a hometown girl who has made good, but it is also the tale of a young woman raised in the local arts scene who through all her success has stayed goodhearted and clearheaded. She is a testament to the power of the performing arts to enrich the lives of students in ways that promote self-awareness, emotional maturity, empathy and innovation.
To think of Gannon is to see her in many tableaux. I can picture her tap dancing advanced numbers with verve and flair in The Arts Center’s staging of 42nd Street and delivering one-liners in Godspell and rising like a small bright flame to warm audiences. I also visualize her spreading her infectious openness, genuineness and passion as she organizes open mic nights, supports younger students and galvanizes volunteers for charity events in her leadership roles in the Interact and Zonta clubs.
For the past two years, I have worked with Gannon as part of Poetry Out Loud, the national poetry recitation contest. She has made it to state finals. To hear her perform “The Death of Allegory” by Billy Collins is to be confronted by a keen intelligence both warmly witty and bitterly angry. She conveys the poem’s sense of loss, its longing for an age charged with meaning rather than one marked by shallow materialism. For a few minutes, you are transported and totally forget you are listening to a high school student. Hearing her rendition of Stephen Dunn’s “Sweetness” makes me ache with gratitude for the fleeting tender moments of life.
Recently, I sat down with this extraordinary young woman to talk about creativity and the arts.
Michael Bassett: You can next be seen on stage in Hilton Head Prep’s production of Thoroughly Modern Millie, which runs November 6-9 at the Seahawk Cultural Center. Can you give us a brief account of the show?
Whitaker Gannon: The protagonist, Millie, is a youthful, naïve young adult who just moved from little Salina Kansas to the Big Apple with only a few suitcases and some big dreams. She aspires to be the perfect modern woman and hopes to find a wealthy boss to marry. She believes modern marriage is a ”business arrangement,” but slowly starts to realize that life is not that simple as she meets new people and explores a completely unfamiliar world outside her small hometown.
MB: Tell us about your role.
WG: Millie is a confident and powerful character, and getting to portray her starry-eyed spirit on stage is a privilege. The role is challenging with big tap dance numbers and energetic songs. I am so excited.
MB: What is some of the best advice or guidance you have received through you involvement with performing arts?
WG: I had an acting coach who used to say actors are “the warriors of the human condition.” That really resonated with me. This teacher also really emphasized that every trouble, every sad or difficult moment could be a tool, something used in the craft and alchemized into art. I also have to say that sometimes it is the mentor’s attitude rather than any specific advice.
When I was dancing in 42nd Street, choreographer Kelli Barclay really believed in my ability to rise to the level of what was demanded of me. She treated me like an equal and didn’t just see my age.
MB: Do you think teenagers in general are not typically taken seriously enough by adults in our culture?
WG: Well, our culture certainly celebrates youth, but I think adults can emphasize experience, which is legitimate, but should not blind people to the importance of the freshness of ideas. Openness—newness of perspective is still valuable.
MB: How do your different creative mediums interact with each other? Are your talents compartmentalized or do they inform each other?
WG: They all pull at my creativity, which is fractal and goes in a bunch of different directions. Sometimes when I’m performing I am totally in the moment, but when I hear a song I don’t just hear it as itself. The lyrics make me associate, and I think of a dance routine or make music videos in my mind, which gives me an idea for a photography or the concept for a poem.
MB: Tell me about your photography.
WG: My uncle has a love and passion for photography. It frustrated me growing up, because he was always taking pictures of me. But he was my first inspiration. There is so much more to photography than just recording, showing or confirming the way the world is. It is such a satisfying and amazing thing to make a visual reality that surprises or transports or accelerates someone else’s experience—maybe even changes their way of seeing for a while.
MB: Some critics of contemporary popular music like to berate it as soulless and trivial? What’s on your playlist that you would offer as evidence against these claims?
WG: Mumford and Sons. Their songs aren’t gimmicky; the lyrics are purposeful, well-chosen, and you can relate to them on a deep level. They are also full of allusions and rich references.
Probably, Hozier as well. The songs are really imagistic and sensuous, a combination of hollow sound with very pathos-laden lyrics.
MB: Who are some of the actors you admire?
WG: Hugh Dancy and Jessica Lange. Lange has no self-consciousness; she just digs into the emotions. She is simultaneously vulnerable and strong. Her performances are real and moving and spectacular.
MB: What is your opinion on the influence of movies and other popular culture on the theater? What do you make of the idea that mainstream theatre has become too derivative, too influenced by Hollywood?
WG: All art forms are influenced by each other and not necessarily in negative or inauthentic ways. If you look with more than a passing glance, there is plenty of creative and provocative stuff happening in both worlds.
MB: You seem to wear your success so lightly. Do you have any commentary on the culture of achievement and all the pressure to measure worth in terms of accolades?
WG: Every achievement for me just serves to set the standards higher for the types of richer experiences I want to have. It’s about becoming more skilled and nuanced in what you are communicating, not just checking things off a list.
MB: Why are the arts important in education?
WG: The arts are not a fun little activity to do when you’re bored or some cute pastime of make-believe. They teach you about identity and the human condition in intensely personal, profound and lasting ways. Acting especially teaches empathy and the ability to inhabit the point of view of different types of people in the world.