The 60’s are Alive and Well and in Psychedelic Color at Signature Theatre

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By Sara Dudley Brown

Debra Monk warming up her “chords” for a recording session as Mrs. Miller in Signature Theatre’s “Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing.” (Photo by Margot Shulman)

One of my favorite actresses, Debra Monk, stars as Mrs. Elva Miller in a world premiere production of “Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing,” at Signature Theatre in Shirlington, Va.  If you enjoyed Debra Monk in some of her Emmy and Tony award winning performances such as “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Mozart in the Jungle,” and her many Broadway and off-Broadway productions, you will absolutely love her in this truly extraordinary role.  This affectionate account of a few pivotal years in Mrs. Miller’s life is beautifully written and touchingly directed by James Lapine (“Sunday in the Park with George” and “Into the Woods”). 

Boyd Gaines (left) and Debra Monk (right) as Mr. and Mrs. Miller making light of an uncomfortable living situation in the hilarious and touching “Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing,” Signature Theatre’s current offering. (Photo by Margot Shulman)

“Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing” is also an evocative, startlingly accurate and somewhat disturbing portrayal of the era and times (the mid-1960’s) of one Elva Miller, who actually lived, was said to be a somewhat classically trained singer and who, up to this point in her life, went about singing her church songs, taking care of her seriously ailing husband, and existing in a sort of a dreamy 50’s haze.  Maybe you remember her?  I do, but just barely.

“These Boots are Made for Walkin’,” with Debra Monk as Mrs. Elva Miller and dancers from left, Kimberly Marable as Denise Banfield, Jacob ben Widmar as Bobby Sherin, and Kaitlyn Davidson as Carol Sue Singleton. (Photo by Margot Shulman)

This production is based on the story of a woman who is plucked from total obscurity and thrown into a world she simply didn’t understand by people who only wanted to profit from her “funny” overwrought sound.  They found if they teamed her with cutting edge (of the day) singers and musicians, and kept her in the dark about what they were actually doing and why audiences were howling, they could laugh all the way to the bank.  It was over in just three years.

During that time Mrs. Miller recorded covers of hits by some of the leading singers of the day, including the Beatles, Petula Clark, and Nancy Sinatra.  Mrs. Miller’s cover of Nancy Sinatra’s song, “These Boots are Made for Walkin’,” as performed by Debra Monk with every word over-articulated while wearing an iconic 60’s fringed green striped dress and white go-go boots, brought down the house.

Additionally, we are treated to some wonderful backup singing and dancing by Jacob ben Widmar, Kaitlyn Davidson, and Kimberly Marable, as well as terrific performances by Boyd Gaines, whom I will never forget inGypsy” on Broadway, and the marvelous Will LeBow, playing seven, count’em seven, singular roles!  Rebekah Brockman as Joelle, Mrs. Miller’s niece, is totally believable, maddening, and touching, as is Corey Mach as Simon Bock, Mrs. Miller’s young producer, who gets sucked into drugs and the promise of easy money.

If you are interested in visiting a little history of the mid-sixties (1966-68) and that turbulent time of great anger, pushback, and change, this is the shop for it!  However, if you weren’t there, you may miss some of the more pointed references to things like Patchouli Oil (it was thought to be an antidepressant and an aphrodisiac) the SDS, and other Viet Nam era in-jokes.

Green brownies and tea. Yum! Wait, green brownies? From left: Debra Monk and Will LeBow. (Photo by Margot Shulman)

Speaking of the 60’s, the sets by Heidi Ettinger are right on, evoking the stark reality of the no frills recording studios of the day, as well as the sad nursing home situation of Mrs. Miller’s husband.  The sensational costumes by Jennifer Caprio, the inventive spot-on choreography by Josh Prince, and the four piece band, ably led by Matt Hinkley, are simply marvelous.  With co-conceiver Mark Oliver Everett; orchestrations by Michael Starobin; lighting by Jeff Croiter; sound by Ryan Hickey; wigs and makeup by J. Jared Janas;  production stage manager Kerry Epstein; and assistant stage manager Allie Roy.

About an hour and 45 minutes. Tickets:  $40-99.  Through March 26 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, VA.  Visit sigtheatre.org or call 703-820-9771.