In the interest of establishing the proper context for what follows, allow me to point out that your humble theater critic is not the target audience for a new musical called “MotherFreakingHood!”
Far from it.
As a matter of fact, I took my seat Sunday afternoon at the Goppert Theatre with fairly low expectations. But what I discovered was slickly executed, beautifully performed series of musical vignettes that reflect the challenges of motherhood, from giving birth to watching babies grow into teenagers and eventually young adults.
The show’s quasi-vaudevillian approach brings to mind another show that seeks to reflect life-cycle experiences shared by women: “Menopause the Musical,” which set parody lyrics to established pop songs. But “MotherFreakingHood!” isn’t using “Menopause” as a template. The original songs by Julie Dunlap and Sara Stotts are clever, irreverent and inventive, even though the recurring emphasis on bodily functions might be a bit much for some viewers.
This production, directed and choreographed by Heidi Van, glows with a professional sheen, thanks in large part to lighting designer Sean Glass, music director Daniel Doss and costume designer Georgianna Buchanan. The flexible, modular set by Elvis Achelpohl and Christine Dietze is comprised of large, interlocking sections that can be broken out and quickly rearranged by stage hands, although the scene changes are a little noisy at times.
The committed cast gets the most out of the material. Three moms of varying ages — played by Jennifer Mays, Sara Carolynn Kennedy and Nancy Nail — meet at their obstetrician’s office after discovering they are all expecting and remain friends for the next two decades. Playing multiple roles are Vanessa Severo (a birthing instructor, a driver’s education teacher with a serious attitude, an assistant daytime manager at a chain store) and Anthony J. Gasbarre III (a bored store employee, a high-schooler on his way to the prom and, most memorably, Mr. Xanax).
These are gifted comic actors, and it’s wonderful to watch them bring their skills to what basically amount to a series of skits that keep the audience engaged throughout. Severo, of course, can get a laugh simply by cocking an eyebrow or suddenly dropping her voice half an octave. Nail is a model of economy, ranging from deadpan delivery to extroverted explosions.
Mays exhibits consummate comic timing, Kennedy invests her performance with wit and makes smart choices, and Gasbarre scores his share of small, telling details. Indeed, much of the potent humor in this production is found in amusing little physical touches the actors bring to their performances.
The play is never wilder than in a sequence extolling the benefits of sedatives. Gasbarre appears as Mr. Xanax, basically an enormous pill with a hat and feet.
The show is broken into two acts and feels too long. The sequences are arranged carefully to reflect the arc of motherhood, but the script could stand to be tightened up a bit
By and large, however, this is a memorable show that may have a bright future.
“MotherFreakingHood!” runs through June 14 at the Goppert Theatre at Avila University, 11901 Wornall Road. For tickets, go to MoonshineVariety.co.