In its five years in existence, the Black Box Theatre has gained a reputation for eclectic script choices and high production values with stellar performers. Its current offering, Motherhood: The Musical, is a fine continuation of that tradition.
Theatre co-founder David M. Miller directed and designed the production, working alongside music director Randin Letendre and choreographer Beth Marsoun. Its book, music, and lyrics are by Sue Fabisch, with an assist on some tunes by Johnny Rodgers and Ilene Angel. Including some 20 songs within 90 minutes, the show is a revue rather than a traditional musical, and its effect is something like Church Basement Ladies meets Company, with most parts either relatable or revelatory – whether you've ever been a mother, or Minnesotan, or married. (That's a "no," "no," and "no" for me.)
The setting is a baby shower for first-time mom Amy, played by the marvelous Kirsten Sindelar. She's a versatile actor, who by my count has performed in five other major stage shows just within the past year. She's also a full-time Circa '21 Bootlegger – she sings and dances before every performance there, in addition to waiting tables. As my mom used to say to me, "Bottle that energy and give me some." Right from the get-go, at the opening-night performance I attended, Sindelar infused her Amy with sweet hope and anticipatory joy, feelings inter-cut with humorous anxiety that was fueled with tales from the trenches by her friends (and experienced moms) Barb, Brooke, and Tina.
Shana Kulhavy, who plays five-times-a-mother Barb, has been absent from the stage for a few years, but has been choreographing for area theatres in the meantime. I'm cursing myself for not having had the pleasure of seeing her onstage until now. In this role, Kulhavy has a wonderful Laurie Metcalf vibe, offering frequent hilarious deadpan line deliveries with occasional goofy moments. She also performs the devastatingly tender "I’m Danny’s Mom," which elicited audible weeping from the audience. (Oh, I cried, too … but quietly.)
A longtime actor, Lucy Dlamini makes her area debut playing Brooke, a mom who works outside the home, as well, and has both swagger and vivacity. Dlamini gives her big number "Costco Queen" a delightful passion as Brooke revels ecstatically in shopping low cost and in bulk. Dlamini has a monumental stage presence, is a treat in every way, and I'd better see her onstage again soon.
Emmalee Hilburn, an accomplished performer, plays divorced mom Tina. Tina sings a lot, and Hilburn knocked me over with her every phrase. She's especially riveting in the blues- and gospel-tinged numbers, and when Tina reminisces about being sexy and fine in the '50s-style "In My Minivan," she is sexy and fine. Yet she blends gentle sadness with realism in "Every Other Weekend." I've long admired Hilburn for her natural acting, and she displays it again in that song.
But then, all of these performers have powerhouse vocal chops, and each one is spectacular. Each is also onstage for the entire show, except for a minute or so near the beginning and end, and they bring it, every moment. They did not rest, and they captivated this audience, which laughed explosively, sighed "Awww!" in empathy, shouted in affirmation, sobbed, and applauded. Toward the end, "Grannyland" brought to Motherhood a different flavor of humor: the thrill of welcoming a baby as seen from the perspective of the mother's mother, performed by one of the actors in a wig, and with a markedly different style than that of her primary character. Soon after, Sindelar's "Now I Know" brought me to tears. (Again – very quiet tears.)
Though this production had a relatively short rehearsal period, the actors' camaraderie is evident. At times, their singing lacked cohesiveness, which may have been due to opening-night nerves, but the live band – Randin Letendre on keyboards, Peter Letendre on drums, and Kyle Jecklin on bass – accompanied the singers smoothly, with excellent balance and volume throughout.
Some slices of life in the show are not restricted to moms. I, too, know of the sad effects of gravity on a body, even without having breastfed; the joys of rolling a packed cart around a membership warehouse store; the benefits of exercising certain hidden muscles. There are a few more potty jokes than I would've preferred, but I concede that mothers deal with these substances more than I do. There wasn't much dad-bashing in the show, as it's taken as read that moms usually put in more time and effort in the everyday business of parenting. And there are wry jabs at the many aspects of child-raising, all played for laughs. But it's a positive show; there are no major heartbreaks or devastating conflicts depicted, except for the bittersweet wistfulness of “They grow up so fast.” Everyone involved has clearly worked their tails off to bring Motherhood: The Musical to you. This one is a must-see.
Motherhood: The Musical runs at the Black Box Theatre (1623 Fifth Avenue, Moline IL) through November 12, and more information and tickets are available by calling (563)284-2350 and visiting TheBlackBoxTheatre.com.