Arts and Entertainment

28 years later, Cyrano’s revisits the joy, heartache and absurdity of motherhood in ‘The Mommy Dance’

Just in time for Mother’s Day (that’s right, it’s Sunday; consider this your reminder), Cyrano’s Theatre Company revisits Anchorage playwright Jill Bess’ autobiographical work of musical comedy, “The Mommy Dance.”

In a phone interview, Bess said the production opening on Friday has been tweaked and updated somewhat for 2022. The one-woman show about the euphoric highs and often gross, colorfully described lows of maternal life originated as one of the first plays in Out North’s “Under 30″ series in 1994.

The original material was drawn from journals Bess kept in the early ‘90s, when her son was young and she was pregnant with her second child.

“I would share stuff with my husband, and he said — Jill, this is a one-woman play,” she said in a phone interview Wednesday.

Immediately popular, the play soon expanded to two acts, with nine original songs, and toured widely. It picked up a number of awards along the way, including Best Actress and Technical Direction from the American Association of Community Theatre in 1995.

Bess has had a 30-year theater career in Alaska. Now in her 60s and recently retired from teaching theater at East High School, she knew she wanted to cast another actress as the young mother when she was approached by Teresa Pond, producing artistic director at Cyrano’s Theatre Company, about reviving the show.

It’s the first time in the show’s history that the mommy has been played by someone other than Bess herself. Instead, Bess directs Seward-based actress Linnéa Hollingsworth in the role. Another change is that Darcy McMullen Kreger’s excellent piano arrangements are recorded for the production instead of being played live on stage.

At a Wednesday preview night, it was clear the razzle-dazzle musical numbers are the highlight of “The Mommy Dance,” and Bess doesn’t shy away from a good pun or visual gag. Bess counts as part of her theatrical history a stint with Mr. Whitekeys in the “Whale Fat Follies,” and many of the songs recall the kind of satirical, old-school Anchorage humor that once thrived in Spenard.

Topics include a meditation on body changes: “Mammaries,” sung to the tune of “The Way We Were,” which features a truly show-stopping brassiere. In “Labor Time,” an enormously pregnant-looking Hollingsworth performs a lengthy tap dance routine complete with a top hat and cane.

The crowd-pleasing closing number of the first act is “The Gross Song.” It’s a very funny song that describes in detail the situations that mothers, plumbers and sanitation workers routinely deal with and everyone else avoids at all cost.

“Doing gross stuff — that’s my job!” Hollingsworth belted out while juggling a plunger, toilet bowl seat and rolls of toilet paper.

Hollingsworth has a big, Broadway-style singing voice and energetic stage presence, and really nails the over-the-top comedy of the musical set pieces. She was outstanding in some of the more complex moments, too: The second act includes a wistful song with an edge of danger performed on a large, mobile piece of equipment. It was genuinely unnerving to watch, but Hollingsworth swung into it with utter fearlessness.

The play vacillates wildly in tone at times, which might be appropriate for the subject but can feel a little jarring. What was surprising was that some of the somber moments landed just as much as the comedy. Bess is unflinching in addressing hard topics like a miscarriage, the flashes of anger that a child can spark in a parent, her struggles to balance her professional drive with the needs of her children.

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I was curious how a show written in the early ‘90s would show its age, especially since it was created before the internet took hold of the way we work, live and parent.

“The Mommy Dance” has had some small updates — Jill has a cellphone, for example. However, if “The Mommy Dance” were written within the last decade or so, it’s hard to imagine there wouldn’t be at least glancing references to mom bloggers, parenting forums and WebMD.

But the play still feels relevant to its core, because the substance is drawn from Bess’ detailed and affectionate observations of the joy, pain and sheer absurdity of parenting, and her focus is mostly on experiences that haven’t changed much over the past 28 years.

Bess said she hopes that the play can continue to include new performers and evolve into the future.

“The feelings that we feel are all universal and don’t change. We all love our kids, we want the best for our kids, but we don’t all take the same pathway to giving our kids that best life. We take the knowledge we have and the skills we have, and the culture and world we live in, and we love our kids,” Bess said.

The Mommy Dance

Opens 7 p.m. Friday, runs 7 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, May 6-26

Tickets $30 at centertix.net

Ages 8 and up allowed; recommended for ages 12 and over

At Cyrano’s Theatre Company, 3800 DeBarr Road

Masks, ID and proof of vaccination required.

Victoria Barber

Victoria Barber was formerly the features editor at the Anchorage Daily News.

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