"Is it going to hurt?" the very pregnant young woman at the center of "Motherhood the Musical" asks the trio of older, wiser friends who've popped round for a baby shower and, like you do, to sing a few original musical numbers in the mother-to-be's living room. "The delivery?" comes the dry response, "or the next 18 years?"
That genuinely funny line scored a knowing, collective laugh from an audience that only had to read the marquee to know what this show was going to about and for whom it was intended. Produced by the same, savvy folks who helped bring us "Menopause the Musical," "Motherhood the Musical," now at the Royal George Theatre, is one of those shows that aims to profit by giving people in a certain demographic the feeling of a safe place and a shared communal experience. It wants to be the premiere destination for spring baby showers.
Such accessible entertainment, to my mind, has value in the wider theatrical ecosystem. Not everyone wants to see "The Iceman Cometh." Some people would rather listen to songs about Costco, or, perchance, enjoy a stage property made entirely of Kirkland bathroom tissue. And the things to like about "Motherhood the Musical" include a willingness to discuss such atypical theatrical matters as, oh, pantyliners and bladder control. "I leak, leak, leak like a Senator in Congress," goes one of my favorite lyrics, closely matched by "I can't do the hustle, because I can't control my muscle." Try finding stuff like that in "Pacific Overtures."
Much as we pretend otherwise and declare ourselves unique individuals, our experiences at these big, messy moments in life — and the arrival of a child is one big messy moment — closely mirror those of our fellow humans. And thus many of the lines and lyrics in this show hit home. There's a sequence involving the selection of baby names that anyone who has gone through such a chore, er, delight, will recognize: someone comes up with a name, and you find yourself unable to separate the moniker from the person who has born it.
So although the show sometimes has to twist like a pretzel to explain the constant absence of men, even when a kid is on the way, the conceit should be workable for an escapist night out. You just stick a few different kinds of mothers in a room and have them crack jokes and sing to a new mom for 90 minutes about what it's all going to be like for an audience that mostly knows full well what it's like.
But a lovable night at the theater requires far more deviation from a formula than this particular show, written by Sue Fabisch, manages to deliver.
The central problem is that nothing is at stake. Granted, there's a kid coming, but the show still feels like it resulted from a group of songwriters sitting around and coming up with individual ideas for songs themed around the different issues that potential mothers approach with ambivalence: epidurals, sex after kids, minivans, the inevitable failings of men. Some of the songs are genuinely fun, but the thin connective tissue seems in service of the numbers, when it needs to be the other way around. And when nothing builds to anything in the broader sense, you find yourself counting how many songs are left.
The show, which is directed by Lisa Shriver and performed by Melody Betts (the divorced mom), Jen Chada (the stay-at-home mom), Kimberly Vanbiesbrouck (the stressed-out career mom) and Madeline Duffy-Feins (the mom to be), veers between truthful, appealing sequences and overwrought cliches. The honest Chada sings a sweet ballad about the sheer satisfaction of taking care of a kid and Betts, a formidable actress, takes a predictable number about watching your kids leave with your ex and turns it into something that feels intensely personal. When
Live musicians would certainly have helped (the show is sung to tape, which feels cheap). So would more sophistication, nuance and, well, truth. For proof that we're still arguing over what motherhood should mean, you need only note the flap that ignited this week when a clumsy Democratic strategist suggested that
When: Through June 17
Where: Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted St.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 mins.