There are certain theater shows that you decide to see because you want to learn, to be challenged, or surprised or moved in some way. Other shows you see because you need a pleasant, inoffensive entertainment to which you can take your grandmother that won't rile her up too much. The forgettable "Motherhood the Musical," currently playing at the Downstairs Cabaret Theatre's Winton Place venue, falls squarely in the latter category. It's unfortunate, as motherhood is a complex subject near and dear to all our hearts, and one that's ripe with dramatic and comedic potential.
What little narrative there is in "Motherhood" centers around a group of female friends getting together to hold a surprise baby shower for the youngest member of their group, Amy, who is expecting her first child. The shower setting serves as a clothesline to hang a plethora of musical numbers as the women compare notes about the trials and tribulations that come with raising a family. It's a sort of a "What To Expect When You're Expecting" with jazz hands.
Admittedly, I am not part of the show's target audience (it's worth noting that it comes from the producers of the highly successful "Menopause the Musical"). But certainly I can appreciate a well-told story about modern matriarchs if it's done with wit or intelligence. Sadly both are in short supply here. Writer Susan Fabisch is content to settle for the formulaic rehashing of sitcom-level cliches about how women are required to be multi-tasking superheroes while the men in their lives are lazy, useless dolts. It feels like a missed opportunity.
What is perhaps most problematic about the show is its need to reinforce the notion that a woman's identity begins and ends with being a mother. These women don't appear to have any hopes, ideas, dreams, or aspirations outside of motherhood. That may seem like an unfair criticism to raise against a show that is, after all, called "Motherhood the Musical," but the narrow focus of subject matter shouldn't be an excuse to not making the characters into fully realized people in their own right.
There are glimpses of real insight, like the moments of terror the new mother experiences just after she gives birth and attempts to breast feed for the first time, suddenly gripped by the realization that she doesn't entirely know what she's doing yet. But that all-too-brief moment of honesty is short-lived, quickly substituted for broad jokes about nipple biting.
The actresses portraying these women are clearly talented and do what they can with the material they're given. In particular Jewel Lucien's fantastic voice is capable of wringing the most emotion possible out of "Every Other Weekend," divorcee Tasha's big ballad about sharing custody of her children and finding herself in a position she never thought she'd be in again, as she tentatively steps back into the dating pool. It was one of the rare songs that stood out among the nearly 20 others that I struggled to recall just hours after seeing the production.
Lisa Manuli and Jen Chada each earn laughs in their roles as a terrified mother-to-be and jaded mother of five, respectively. Though she gives a valiant effort, I found it difficult to buy Ilona Ahearn's performance as a workaholic lawyer, but that may have more to do with the fact that we never see her character actually do any work related to her job.
The show's director and choreographer, Lisa Shriver, keeps things moving at a brisk pace; the show is certainly lively. But your enjoyment for the production will be entirely dependent on how hilarious you find breast-pump-related humor and songs about incontinence, all presented in the most inoffensive way possible — this is a show that can't even bring itself to explicitly state what MILF stands for.
Still, judging by the cheers, laughter, and nods of recognition from the audience at the performance I attended — unsurprisingly made up mostly of women of a certain age — the majority of the room seemed to get a kick out of the communal experience of seeing their daily lives turned into musical tribute. There's value in that, and maybe that's enough. But frankly, I think Mom deserves better.