Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
You have probably seen the quote attributed to feminist scholar Laurel Thatcher Ullrich, "Well behaved women rarely make history." Whether the women touted in this show were well behaved or not will depend greatly on your point of view. From the perspective of whether or not their behaviors pushed boundaries for women and for all humanity, to make a more just and joyful society, I am in the camp of saying, yes, these women behaved very well indeed. Did they speak when others expected them to be silent? Often yes. Did they ruffle feathers? Certainly. But one could argue that in the face of sexism, racism, enslavement, and other forms of oppression, to remain silent and still would have been to behave badly.
Over the course of fifteen songs, with music and lyrics by Carmel Dean, these women take turns in the spotlight. Most are solo numbers, sometimes backed up by other cast members as a choral ensemble. "Order in the Court" features a quartet composed of Sandra Day O'Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan. Another number, "The Water is Where," is a duet sung by Fanny Durack and Mina Wylie, two Australian women who overcame many obstacles to swim in the 1912 summer Olympics in Stockholm–the first Olympic games to include women's swimming and diving. For the closer, taken from Maya Angelou's "We Rise," the entire cast joins in to make a shared statement that applies to all of these women: whatever setbacks they suffered, whatever barriers stood in their path, each in their own way pushed forward. It is as close to a "big finale" as a show with seven voices and a lone–though exceptionally good–pianist, Harrison Wade, can provide.
Dean's career has primarily been as an arranger of musical theatre scores and a music director, including for the Broadway runs of If/Then, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, American Idiot and Hands on a Hardbody. Her first show with her own compositions was Renascence, a musical about Edna St. Vincent Millay that appeared Off-Broadway in 2018. Well Behaved Women followed in January 2020, with two sold-out performances at Joe's Pub in The Public Theater in New York. Given its warm reception there, it may well have started showing up at regional theaters sooner, but then came the pandemic. I imagine productions of this likable property with a snappy score, a smallish cast, and easy-to-meet production needs will pop up around the country. Dean, meanwhile, is at work with singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson on a musical version of the Nicholas Sparks novel (and its film adaptation) The Notebook, which drew raves at its premiere in Chicago earlier this season.
Well Behaved Women begins with its seven cast members walking on stage–a bare space set with six chairs arranged in an arc facing the audience. The back wall is lit in green with slides depicting the women who we will be getting to know better through Dean's songs. Six of cast members take seats as Christine Wade steps up to the microphone positioned dead center and launches into the first song, "In the Beginning," as none other than Eve. It's a great number. Eve describes the joys of the garden before the apple, the lure of the serpent, and then the wrath aimed at her ever since. She allows for a bit of repentance, but mostly expresses resentment that God chose to make her the scapegoat for the fall of humanity. The song has a jaunty bossa nova tempo, the lyrics are snarky, and Wade makes the most of it, with her lustrous, strong voice and persuasive attitude.
Next up is "The Warrior Queen" about Boudicca, the queen of an ancient British tribe who led a revolt from AD 60 - 61. She failed to defeat the Roman conquerors, but nevertheless is a British national hero. Her song is delivered with fire and rage by Beatrix Kelly. Boudicca is followed by Harriet Tubman, extolling slaves to escape the plantations and join her "On the Railroad," an anthem sung with warm conviction by Abigail Walker. Then it's "Hey Bobby Riggs," Billie Jean King's taunting of the male chauvinist tennis star who expected to easily defeat King in the match dubbed "the battle of the sexes." Alexa Johnson does a terrific job with songs with jazzy rhythms and bold confidence.
Eleanor Roosevelt, sung with panache by Kym Chambers Otto, welcomes the "Ladies of the Press" to the first of the weekly press conferences she held for female reporters at a time when only male reporters could attend presidential pressers. Serena Brook delivers both gorgeous singing and keen comedic instincts as Mary Magdalene, bemoaning the challenge of being "The Only Girl at the Table" at the Last Supper, which is sung, believe it or not, as a country hoedown. Next up, Alexa Johnson and Abigail are the swimmers Fanny Durack and Mina Wylie, singing their hopes of fulfilling their dreams.
Christine Wade returns with another bolt of snark and sarcasm, underscored with regret, as Virginia Woolf, speculating, as she did in her essay "A Room of One's Own,," that "If Shakespeare Had a Sister," she well may also have been a brilliant writer, but we would never know it, since she'd never have had the opportunities that her brother did. This is the most complex and fully realized of the show's segments, bolstered by Wade's full-bore performance. Estefania Sedorski makes her first appearance, portraying Frida Kahlo, giving a searing performance of a canción, avowing the artist's determination to hide nothing and live by her own truth, "Yo Simplemente Soy."
The program continues with Cleopatra's song, which has a rough and tumble rhythm and blues quality, delivered by Abigail Walker; Janet Armstrong (Kym Otto Chambers) staying strong to support her husband Neil's dream of a moonwalk; and aboriginal Australian sprinter Kathy Freeman, who lit the Olympic flame at the opening of the 2000 Summer Olympic games in Sydney and went on to win the gold medal for the 400 meter race. The Statue of Liberty springs to life as "Lady Liberty," sung with fervor by Estefania Sedorski, addressing all who yearn for liberty, past and present. That brings us to the Supreme Court quartet, our first four female justices portrayed by Kym Chambers Otto, Serena Brook, Alexa Johnson, and Estefania Sedorski. The justices call for more women on the court, not guessing when Dean launched the show early in 2020 that by the end of the year another woman would join the court (but is Amy Coney Barrett what they had in mind?). We'll see if Dean opts for revisions at some point. Finally, the closing ensemble piece, Maya Angelou's "We Rise," brings the production to a spirited end.
I thoroughly enjoyed Well Behaved Women for Dean's articulate lyrics–sometimes humorous, sometimes scathing, sometimes tender–set to catchy melodies that embrace a wide range of styles, all of which could find a place under the big umbrella of musical theater. I enjoyed the show too for the performances of these seven very talented women, and Harrison Wade's musicianship. It is a small show, but its eighty minutes (more or less) run time is filled with pleasure and insight.
Well Behaved Women, runs through February 18, 2023, at Theatre Elision, Elision Playhouse, 6105 42nd Avenue North, Crystal MN. Tickets: $5 - $30. For tickets and information call 612-662-6105 or visit www.elisionproductions.com.
Music and Lyrics: Carmel Dean; Director, Designer: Lindsay Fitzgerald; Music Director, Sound Design: Harrison Wade; Lighting Design: Laina Grendle; Stage Manager: Constance Brevell
Cast: Serena Brook (Mary Magdalene, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, ensemble), Alexa Johnson (Billie Jean King, Fanny Durack, Elena Kagan, ensemble), Beatrix Kelly (Boudicca, Cathy Freeman, ensemble), Kym Chambers Otto (Eleanor Roosevelt, Janet Armstrong, Sandra Day O'Connor, ensemble), Estefania Sedorski (Frida Kahlo, Lady Liberty, Sonia Sotomayor, ensemble), Christine Wade (Eve, Virginia Woolf), Harrison Wade (pianist), Abigail Walker (Harriet Tubman, Mia Wylie, Cleopatra).