March 9, 2017
Special to The Alexandria Times
James Lapine’s latest opus, a story about the housewife with the caterwauling voice who becomes an overnight success, may be a metaphor to showcase how everyone’s wildest dreams can come true…or not. With this latest work, Lapine, best known for Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods, both co-written with composer Stephen Sondheim, has given us an undistinguished anomaly to his earlier masterpieces. His world premiere musical based on the life of Mrs. Elva Miller (Debra Monk), centers around a church lady who was “discovered” by a record producer who pegged her for a comedic diversion. This was in the mid-1960’s when comedians like Allan Sherman and Victor Borge were wittily parodying or satirizing familiar songs and the record-buying public was easily amused during an unpopular war. But Mrs. Miller, as she preferred to be called, was unaware the joke was on her. Or so she is portrayed. “I might have been off on one or two notes,” she allows.
The story begs comparison to this year’s Oscar-nominated film, Florence Foster Jenkins, that features a delusional New York heiress with an equally appalling voice. The movie stars the brilliant Meryl Streep as Foster Jenkins and the eternally soigné Hugh Grant as her adoring gentleman and enabler. Grant plays a winning charmer in a film set a few decades earlier in 1940’s New York, whereas Miller’s husband is a wheelchair-bound, crotchety old gent who resents Mrs. M’s success. Lapine sets his piece in small town Claremont, a bedroom community outside of Los Angeles. Similarly, both women are clueless about their lack of vocal abilities.
The plot takes us through a three-year span of Miller’s short-lived yet meteoric career against the backdrop of her niece Joelle (Rebekah Brockman) and Joelle’s romance with Miller’s accompanist Simon Bock (Corey Mach) and, later, Simon’s looming draft service. Unfortunately, there is not enough heft to carry an hour and forty-five minutes of pop music covers sung in a screeching voice with a trio of backup singers drawn from predictable stereotypes – one groovy African American gal, Denise (Kimberly Marable, who pulls off arguably the best scene in the show), one fluffy blonde, Carol Sue (Kaitlyn Davidson), and one gay guy, Bobby (Jacob ben Widmar doubling as Tiny Tim) who runs off to Greenwich Village in search of sexual diversion. I won’t fault the actors. They did a fine job given the material.
Monk is superb in the role of Elva Miller. Despite the thin plot and hackneyed script, she’s totally believable as the ditsy, maniacally cheery Miller with her ingratiating manners and off-key, nails-on-a-blackboard howling. There’s even a bit of toggling back and forth to her actual singing voice in a few dream sequences. And character actor Will LeBow is exceptional in all seven roles – among them a stoner record producer, Ed Sullivan, Mr. Miller’s Jewish doctor and a snooty salesman at Tiffany’s.
Those under fifty may be clueless as to the obscure references to Tiny Tim, Ed Sullivan and Topo Gigio as well as many of the songs of that era. Millennials won’t fare any better. But if the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s are in your wheelhouse, you’ll feel right at home.
Through March 26th at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206. For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.sigtheatre.org.