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Monday, March 13, 2017

'Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing' at Signature Theater

Debra Monk as Mrs. Miller. [Margot Schulman]
By David Siegel

With gentleness and clear affection for an unexpected heroine, Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winner James Lapine has written and directed with a disarming touch an endearing new play “with music” called “Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing.”

In its premiere at Signature Theatre, the production is a sweet cupcake full of lovingkindness and wisdom balanced with laughter.

For those not of the Baby Boomer generation or familiar with the cultural side features of the later 1960s, the real-life Mrs. Elva Miller had 15 minutes of fame by singing badly, selling lots of record albums, and appearing on TV. She went “viral” before the term was coined.

As conjured by Lapine, the character Mrs. Miller is a folksy, sincere, salt-of-the earth-type with quirks. (And who of us doesn’t have a quirk or two or three). Mrs. Miller is a woman of an uncertain mature age. Her older husband has just had a stroke, and the prognosis for him is not so great. Mrs. Miller craves attention – which she unexpectedly gets through her rather comic way of singing.

The real key to the success of “Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing” is the smart, totally sincere, charming rendering and sensational performance by Debra Monk.

Monk doesn’t play portray Elva as a fool or some farcical creation but gives her an authentic, likeable nature that reached beyond the stage right into my head. I began to overlook her bad singing and “conservative” values to take in the person she was.

Monk’s Mrs. Miller has a deadpan earnestness. And yes, Monk provides plenty of laughs with her genuine bad singing of 60s tunes that run the gamut from “Downtown” to “Monday Monday” and “A Hard Day’s Night” and even “The Ballad of the Green Berets” and “White Rabbit.”

But, Lapine also gave Monk the chance to sing straight, as if Mrs. Miller was hearing herself sing like an angel in her own head. When Monk sang “Clouds” and “Stardust,” the hush in the audience was total. I, like others near me, sat up straight and forward so as not miss the beauty of Monk’s true voice. She was simply magnetic.

But “Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing” is more than just one character and her bad singing. Lapine gives the show some juice by providing context on the later 1960s: a pastiche of the Vietnam War, women’s rights, civil rights, and black power.

Lapine surrounds Mrs. Miller with a live-in niece named Joelle (played convincingly and winningly by Rebekah Brockman), who goes from a geek and virgin to a young woman with confidence and a willingness to speak her mind. Joelle becomes the true avatar and champion of “the times they are a changin.’”

Boyd Gaines, as Mrs. Miller’s husband, gives a startlingly convincing performance of a man frustrated by a debilitating stroke. Gaines is so real, and at times so vulgar, he brought the house to a loud gasp at some of his dialogue. I hated what I heard, but Gaines made me feel his pain and my own pain.

Will LeBow plays a number of characters, including several irascible ones, giving each one their own personality. As a trio of backup singers, Kaitlyn Davidson, Kimberly Marable, and Jacob ben Widmar are a visual and aural delight. And with a solo near the show’s finale, Marable made a musical and cultural statement that shook the rafters.

Corey Mach plays Joelle’s boyfriend and co-conspirator, who is worried about the draft lottery and going to Vietnam as a grunt. That flooded me with way too similar memories. (Ask a late Baby Boomer male what his draft lottery number was, and you will find them easily remembering, or if they were more fortunate, what kind of draft deferment they received.)

As for the creative team’s work, Heidi Ettinger’s two-level scenic design is a visual depiction of 1960s events and icons. Costumes by Jennifer Caprio are of the period, as is the lively choreography by Josh Princes that easily reminded me of the often-changing dance steps and routines of those times.

Not enough can be said about the super full-throttle music played by Matt Hinkely (guitar/conductor), Jenny Cartney (piano), Dan Hall (bass), and Paul Keesing (drums) and the overall musical supervision and orchestration by Michael Starobin.

“Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing” is not just about a single musical gimmick. James Lapine and Debra Monk poke gentle fun, rather than lampoon. Over the course of the play, what might have been just a kitsch show with plenty of off-key warbling, becomes one in which Mrs. Miller shows herself to be a woman of decency, caring, and unexpected substance.

Thanks to Monk, Mrs. Miller is an irresistible presence and a tour de force. You don’t need to recall the 1960s to enjoy “Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing.”

Where and When: “Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing” plays through March 26, at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., in Shirlington. Shows are 8 p.m. on Saturdays, Thursdays, and Fridays; 7:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays; and 2 and 7 p.m. on Sundays.

Discussion nights are scheduled for March 15 and 21. There’s an open caption performance on March 14. Purchase tickets online or call the box office, 703-820-9771.

This post is based on a review that appeared in DC Metro Arts March 9.

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