Review: ‘Mother%$!#hood’ irreverent, sweet and fun

It’s hard to describe succinctly Kansas University alumnae Julie Dunlap’s and Sara Stotts’s musical comedy “Mother%$!#hood,” which was performed at the Lawrence Arts Center last weekend.
Is it irreverent or sentimental? Is it flawed or perfect? Is it dirty or sweet?

The best answer to all those questions is: Yes.

The story follows three different women who become friends and bond through the shared experience of motherhood.
It opens with each staring at a positive home pregnancy test. Rachel (Melia Stockham) is a first-time mom. She and her husband have been trying for two years to get pregnant, and she is elated they’ve finally conceived. Angie (Trish Averill Neuteboom) is a career woman who is having her second child right on schedule. Marcia (Stotts) is older. Her three children have grown, and she’s looking forward to an empty nest when she gets a surprise.

The three meet at a birthing class, have their babies shortly thereafter and become fast friends, despite their very different experiences and views on being mothers. The first act follows their adventures from conception to elementary school, while Act II covers the teenage years through high school graduation.

Dunlap and Stotts approach their show from an interesting angle. We never see the children our protagonists are mothering, or even the husbands who sired them. The entire focus is on the three women, with a small cast of chorus members/supporting characters present largely to add emphasis or conflict to certain scenes.

Because it’s a show about motherhood, the tactic works well. Rather than having the husband’s and children’s perspective cluttering up our view of the three women, we get uninhibited insight into their experiences.

There’s almost no cohesive plot to the show. It is a series of vignettes designed to touch on things all mothers go through. Rachael is the Go-Mom, getting tons of things every day, because she simply has no choice. Angie prays for her daughter not to be too attractive so boys won’t lust after her. Marcia loses her son in the grocery store … on a regular basis.

Not only is it honest and funny — the kind of thing every mother can relate to — it is also irreverent and often profane. In “Marital Debt,” Rachael sings in the raunchiest terms about how she wants to have sex tonight, but she’s just too tired. In “Bully Tango,” Marcia tells us about the boy picking on her son, what she’d like to do to him and a number of nasty things about what the kid’s mother did in high school. And in “Prom Night,” Angie sums it up succinctly when she sings to her daughter’s prom date, “If you want to (expletive) my daughter, I’m gonna (expletive) you up.”

But if it is raunchy and irreverent, the audience didn’t mind. Dunlap and Stotts work the blue humor expertly, getting laughs and wild cheers at the end of each song instead of gasps. They know when to go for an off-color joke and when to keep it sweet and sentimental.

And the show is very touching. Rachael’s lullaby, “Has Anyone Seen my Baby?” is moving and says what every new mother feels for her child. “Friends to the End” celebrates how one of the ways modern women get through motherhood is through friendship with others who understand what they’re going through. “Graduation” is both comedic and loving as each character comes to terms with what it means to have their last (and, in Rachael’s case, her only) child leaving home.

Moreover, the show is about women and the mothering experience, but much of its material is familiar to fathers too. Dunlap and Stotts are writing principally to women, but they made certain not to alienate the men who came (even though there were fewer of them).

Part of the show’s success is the performance of its cast. Stockham is brilliant as the first-time mom. Her facial expressions as she learns the horrors of giving birth are hilarious. When she sings her lullaby, she expresses that perfect love mothers of newborns know. Overwrought by her only child’s high school graduation, she is both funny and sincere as the weepy (and intoxicated) mom, who’s holding on just a little too tightly.

Likewise, Neuteboom captures perfectly the career woman who struggles mightily when her children turn out not to be angels. She turns to antidepressants and Xanax to cope with the stress. The song “Pharmacology” manages to be sad and comical at the same time.

Stotts hits all the right notes as the older mom, who can’t believe she has to do all this again. She is indignant anyone should judge her, when she is working as hard as she can. She is wiser than her compatriots due to having had three children before, but her struggles are no easier. Sarcastic, profane and hilarious, Stotts is a lot of fun to watch.

If “Mother%$!#hood” has flaws, they are minimal. The first act goes on a little long, and the show becomes a touch too sentimental as it progresses.

Technically, the production is strong. Dunlap directs it tightly. Steffani Day’s costumes are excellent, and the music is catchy and performed well under Ric Averill’s direction. One wishes the microphones had been potted up a little louder during the songs. Sitting behind the orchestra on the left side of the house made it difficult to hear some of the words.

But none of the show’s problems detract in any way from the experience. Dunlap and Stotts render an irreverent and sentimental, flawed and perfect, dirty and sweet look at what they call “the world’s second-oldest profession.”

How do you describe “Mother%$!#hood” succinctly? Fun.