Review: ‘Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing’ at Signature Theatre

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”; Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing. In its premiere at Signature Theatre, the production is a sweet cupcake full of loving-kindness and wisdom, balancing the laughter and “yucks” I heard from myself and the audience on opening night.

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

As conjured by Lapine, the character Mrs. Elva 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.  Her rather comic way of singing gets her plenty of sudden, unanticipated attention.

But, 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 as “the” Mrs. Miller. Monk inhabits her Mrs. Elva Miller character playing her not for a fool or some farcical creation. Monk gives her Mrs. Miller 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 good laughs with her genuine bad singing of ‘60’s tune that run the gamut from “Downtown,” Monday Monday,” “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” to name two tunes, 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.

Debra Monk in Signature Theatre’s ‘Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing.’ Photo by Margot Schulman.

But, Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing is more than just one character and her bad singing. Lapine gives the show some juice by providing some context and juice for how things were in the later 1960s; a pastiche of the Vietnam War, Women’s Rights, Civil Rights, and Black Power.

Lapine surrounds Mrs. Alva 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 stroke victim husband gives a startling convincing performance of a man frustrated by his new inabilities to be and perform as he once was. Gaines is so real and at times so vulgar. He brought the house to a heard loud gasp at some of his delivered 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 one, and does so giving each their own personality. As a trio of backup singers to Mrs. Miller, Kaitlyn Davidson, Kimberly Marable, and Jacob ben Widmar are a visual and aural delight. 1. And with a solo near the show’s finale, Marable made a musical and cultural statement that made the rafters of the Max shake, at least to me.

And Corey Mach as Joelle’s boy-friend and co-conspirator had scenes deeper into the production as a young male worried about the draft lottery in the late 1960’s 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 with the General Hersey’s draft lottery and you will find them easily remembering, or if they were more fortunate how 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 1960’s event sand icons with about 24 panels of large scale images greeting the incoming audience. The images will be easily recognizable to Baby Boomers, perhaps less so to younger audience members. 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 days and times.

Not enough can be said about the super full throttle music was 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 no kitsch show run into the ground with a single musical gimmick. What James Lapine and Debra Monk accomplished is to 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 and caring and unexpected substance.

With the “baffo” work of Debra Monk, the character of Mrs. Miller is an irresistible presence and a tour de force! You don’t need to recall the late 1960’s to enjoy Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing. Don’t miss it!

Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission.

Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing plays through March 26, 2017, at Signature Theatre – 4200 Campbell Avenue, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 820-9771, or purchase them online.


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