If Dolly Gallagher Levi is still going strong, and if Mame Dennis could charm the husk right off of the corn, then it can be said Mrs. Elva Miller could stop traffic – with her voice.
The matronly hausfrau in the mid-to-late 1960s may not have literally stopped traffic, but from the sound of things in this bio-play with music, people driving their cars might have thought their radio was out-of-whack when one of Mrs. Miller’s recordings came on the air.
With this very interesting premise, playwright-director James Lapine (Sunday in the Park with George, Falsettos) has crafted a valentine to the unique talent and poignant story of the little old lady from Claremont, California, who went from warbling in her church choir to the recording studio, 60s TV, and even a USO tour of Vietnam with Bob Hope and company. Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing how her lack of a pleasant vocal instrument did not deter her from enthusiastically making lemonade out of a very big lemon. And the price she paid for her fifteen minutes of fame.
Very much a nostalgia-filled journey back to the turbulent mid-1960s, Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing calls up the era just after the British invasion, a time of civil rights, women’s liberation, Black power, and counterculture reaction to the establishment. Enter Elva Miller, a former housekeeper in her late-50s who married a much older man later in life. Happy to keep house and bake up a storm for her sweet-tooth of a husband, Elva is patriotic, reverent, and an avid churchgoer, primarily so she can lift her voice in song for the glory of the Lord.
Or so she thought. She refers to herself as “classically trained,” yet the training failed her somewhere along the way. Known around Claremont for singing at mortuaries, one character observes upon hearing Miller’s voice, “Your singing must really stir the souls at the funeral home.” You can easily hear for yourself from clips on YouTube or on a website dedicated to keeping her memory (and sounds) alive.
The best way to describe Elva Miller’s voice is to imagine the stentorian quality of Ethel Merman, but the “Love Boat” Ethel, not in her heyday. Then add a vibrato that could be said to emulate a tidal wave. Finish off the sound with a heartfelt delivery that loses control of any sense of tone, pitch, or musicality. And this is the voice some intrepid record producers thought should be heard on four long-playing albums! Those recordings are littered with an eclectic blend of pop and rock hits, such as “The Shadow of Your Smile,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” “The Girl from Ipanema,” “Green Tambourine,” and “Renaissance of Smut.” Mr. Lapine’s character gets to wrap her vocal chords around some of these pop hits and much more.
As portrayed by the Tony Award-winning Debra Monk, Miller’s unique vocals are approximated with a comedic flair. Monk is known for many appearances in Broadway musicals by composers the like of Sondheim, and Kander and Ebb. Here, Lapine has Monk pervert her instrument just enough to offer a taste of Elva Miller’s off-key bleats. It takes a great singing-actress to play a truly bad singer, and Monk handles these duties with panache. One of the highlights of this world premiere play with music is when the audience gets to hear Mrs. Miller’s secret voice, the sound she hears in her own ears and down deep in her heart. Monk shines in these moments, as she does, truly, throughout the play.
Comic timing is Monk’s bread and butter and here Lapine has given her a role, akin to Judy Kaye’s turn in Souvenir as Florence Foster Jenkins, the Mrs. Miller of previous generations. (And yes, I know Meryl Streep played FFJ in the recent film.) Monk conveys a mixture of matronly naivete and hard-scrabble determination that skates a fine-line between parody and pathos and is wholly engaging.
Monk shares palpable chemistry with fellow Tony Award-winner Boyd Gaines as her elderly husband John Miller. Many years Elva’s senior, we see John convalescing in a nursing home, bolstered by his wife’s frequent visits. Never really recovering from a stroke, John’s deterioration roughly parallels Elva’s fifteen minutes of fame, from 1966 to 1968. Gaines plays older very well, showing the physical signs of John’s condition with precision, and connecting to Monk as his wife with humor that gives way to the heartbreak of a spouse seeing the other spouse fade away.
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Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing
closes March 26, 2017
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Mrs. Miller’s other family member, her niece Joelle is handled skillfully by Rebekah Brockman, who goes on her own journey with her aunt’s sudden fame. Starting as a mousey college freshman, Joelle joins Elva’s tiny entourage and finds herself opening her mind and body to the new experiences of the sexual revolution and drug culture of the music industry. Her anti-Vietnam War stance clashes with her aunt’s staunch patriotism and these conflicts help propel the story through the demise of Miller’s novelty singing career.
Lapine’s play shows us how Elva went from local singer to recording star through the stewardship of Simon Bock, a young record producer who goes from buttoned up square to drug-addled mini-music mogul. Corey Mach plays Simon’s wide-eyed innocence and his quick decline equally well. As crafted by Lapine’s script, we see the light bulb go on when Bock shares Mrs. Miller’s rendition of “Downtown” with big time record producer Larry Drummond. Thinking millions of record-buyers – a.k.a. pot-smoking college kids – will think Elva’s strange vocals will be a hoot, they record her first album. Despite Joelle’s early protestations, she gives in to her aunt’s desire for having fun and relishing the limelight for her short-lived career.
Adding to her extended showbiz family is a trio of backup singers who become like surrogate children to Mrs. Miller. Gay Bobby, proud Black woman Denise, and blond (and eventual bimbo) Carol Sue are likely representative of figures, and really serve to show the rapid changes in the three-year period of the play. Their stories work well enough, but they really shine with backing up Mrs. Miller with vocals and dance moves of the era, ponying, frugging ingo-go boots to beat the band. (Kudos to choreographer Josh Prince.) Their appearance on Ed Sullivan, stomping out “These Boots Were Made for Walking” is worth the price of admission; as is their USO performance in Vietnam, complete with coordinated camo-inspired costumes. Jacob ben Widmar, Kimberly Marable, and Kaitlyn Davidson – as Bobby, Denise, and Carol Sue, respectively – all carry their roles and dance moves memorably.
Will Lebow ends up spending almost as much time on stage as Monk, since he is the character man of the hour, playing John’s doctor, Drummond the record producer, deadpan dead-on Ed Sullivan, and others.
The play is enhanced by Jennifer Caprio’s costume designs that look as if they were time warped in from “That Girl,” and Haight-Ashbury. Heidi Ettinger provides a three-quarter thrust stage arrangement that allows for quick changes, aided by a turntable and evocative stage wall filled with images from Mrs. Miller’s era: Moon landing, Vietnam, Lawrence Welk, the Beatles, and her beloved home, Claremont.
Another strength of this top-notch production is the music department. Playing charts orchestrated by Michael Starobin, music director Matt Hinkley and his small band bring back the sounds of the mid-60s from bubble-gum pop, to acid rock.
My guess is Lapine is looking for Mrs Miller to continue to do her thing beyond the run at Signature. The mixture of nostalgia, a strong yet novel central character, appealing music (albeit performed tongue-in-cheek), and a small cast should make even a New York run possible at some point. Mrs. Miller deserves her time in the spotlight once again.
Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing . A Play with Music by James Lapine . Director: James Lapine . Featuring: Debra Monk, Boyd Gaines, Jacob ben Widmar, Rebekah Brockman, Kaitlyn Davidson, Will Lebow, Corey Mach, and Kimberly Marable. Choreographer: Josh Prince . Scenic design: Heidi Ettinger . Costume design: Jennifer Caprio . Lighting design: Jeff Croiter . Sound design: Ryan Hickey . Wig, hair, and makeup design: J. Jared Janas . Musical supervision and orchestrations: Michael Starobin . Music direction: Matt Hinkley . Production stage manager: Kerry Epstein . Produced by Signature Theatre . Reviewed by Jeff Walker .