Stage Review: ‘Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing’

17008-058Bad singers make interesting stories. After Meryl Streep got an Oscar nomination for her role as the classical world’s “Florence Foster Jenkins,” last year, here comes Broadway’s Debra Monk, warbling the pop repertoire of a mid-1960s musical misfit in a new musical full of Great White Way pedigree.

No less than Pulitzer Prize winner James Lapine, who wrote and directed “Sunday in the Park with George” and “Into the Woods,” came up with “Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing” getting its world premiere at Arlington’s Signature Theatre.

He’s calling it a “a play with music.” But there are some who may question what Mrs. Miller did was actually music.

Those of us old enough to remember the brief career of the real Mrs. Miller know that she was a 50-something housewife who was encouraged to use her brash, vibrato-heavy opera-leaning voice on the hits of the day.

It was a kick, in part because the songs themselves where so beloved that they could withstand this playful weirdness. Petula’s Clark’s “Downtown” was her big hit, with her coming in way too late and muffing the chorus. She tried on Beatles songs, too, since she was on Capitol Records, and “A Lover’s Concerto” as well.

She got on Ed Sullivan and other variety shows of the moment, and it was still unclear if she was “in on the joke” or so soaking in the acclaim she thought perhaps people really liked her approach.

It’s the sweetest blast from the past to be reminded of this fleeting career, but Lapine’s challenge is to build a narrative around it. So he’s added a husband in convalescent care, a niece who indulges her aunt’s recording fling because it makes the old gal happy; a producer who wants to exploit her, and a  younger producer who is depending on her success. And of course there is all the baggage of the 60s: riots, the Vietnam war, assassinations, in the script if not the set by Tony winner Heidi Ettinger.

Some of that story fits, and some doesn’t.

But “Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing,” named after the final album before her later obscurity (an acid rock thing I’m dying to get my hands on), has already shaped into a flashy product, with Ettinger’s  two-story stage and turntable set changes, an offstage band that handles the 60s ditties and a remarkably accomplished cast led by Monk.

A Tony winner herself (for “Redwood Curtain”) and multiple past nominee (for “Curtains” and Pump Boys and Dinettes,” in which she starred and co-wote), Monk is also a familiar TV star in “Mozart in the Jungle,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Girls” and “NYPD Blue,” where she won an Emmy playing Andy Sipowicz’ wife.

Her residual glamour, even at 68, is almost too much to play Miller, whose appeal in part came from her essential frumpiness.

It’s tough to replicate the Bizarro Ethel Merman voice of Miller, but Monk does well, screeching for effect and mussing the timing even when she lays off the Miller trademark of a theatrical vibrato that’s something out of the Cowardly Lion.

The marvelous part, and the theatrical magic that Lapine brings to it, has moments where Monk, under different lights (by Jeff Crofter), sings in the voice she hears herself — ringing and on key — before crashing back to reality and the wince-inducing voice we all hear.

When not singing, Monk’s Miller shows an indelible optimism about her surroundings, even as the 60s world around her seems to be falling apart (and her niece stops wearing a bra).

Boyd Gaines, a four time Tony winner, brings a depth of pain as Miller’s cranky husband, stuck in a nursing home, unaware of the growing fame of his wife. Though he appears briefly, he practically grounds the whole thing dramatically.

Rebekah Brockman nicely handles the changes of the neice who turns from meek college freshman to a free love SDS member. Corey Mach is the young pianist turned producer who also becomes the niece’s love interest.

Will LeBow plays so many different roles, from doctor to producer to photographer to Sullivan, he completely fooled me with one of them.

Jacob ben Widmar, Kaitlyn Davidson and Kimberly Marable play a backing singing and dancing troupe who rise with Miller and add a lot to the musical performances, which culminates with a twisted version of “Ballad of the Green Berets” at a USO tour (though Marable’s brief solo turn is the one moment that doesn’t quite ring true).

They all do what they can thanks to the choreography of Josh Prince (whose last Broadway assignment was a more tuneful jukebox musical, “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical”).

Music supervisor Michael Starobin and music director Matt Hinkley smartly wrap a lot of the splendid 60s tunes (“Monday Monday,” “She Loves You”) into medleys. Once the effect of her singing these things is clear, it’s time to quickly move to the next.

The musicality of the work may owe something to Mark Oliver Everett, credited as co-conceiver of the show with Lapine. He’s better known in rock circles as the mastermind of the band Eels, who once went by the stage name E.

As fun as “Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing” can be, can the Broadway-hopeful work find a larger audience beyond Arlington? Well, in her time, Miller herself did.

I just hope nobody’s slaving away on a William Hung musical.

“Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing” continues through March 26 at Signature Theatre, Arlington, VA. 


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