What do Macy Gray, Willie Nelson, Jackson Browne, the Moscow Festival Ballet, and Memphis independent theater company Voices of the South all have in common? At some point in the past year they have all played the McCallum Theatre in Palm Desert, California. The McCallum is a beautiful 1,500-seat theater that books Broadway touring shows, A-list dance companies, well-known pop stars, and, of course, Voices of the South, the tiny performance group that debuts its latest children's musical Wilhemina Millicent's Wonderful World of Imagination at TheatreWorks this week.
The McCallum Theatre, which opened its education and outreach wing in 1997, became interested in Voices of the South a few years back at a workshop sponsored by the Greater Memphis Arts Council's Center for Arts Education. At the time, the recently revamped CAE was gaining a reputation for its arts education program, and the workshop was designed to showcase Memphis' teaching artists.
"They love us there," says V.O.T.S. co-founder Jenny Odle Madden. "We'll probably go to Palm Desert every year for the rest of our lives. We'll all be performing The Ugly Duckling until we're 80. We are ambassadors of Memphis."
Having discovered a little secret that Memphis rock bands have known for some time -- that Memphis artists get more respect out of town -- V.OT.S. has committed itself to touring. "Major touring," Odle Madden says, "not little Podunk touring. There's just something special about having bottled water and fruit in the dressing room where Tim Conway and Harvey Korman sat the night before."
V.O.T.S.'s latest has its roots in happenstance. Dana Berbette, a Tupelo-based author who has won the Eudora Welty prize for children's literature, had been getting the runaround from publishers. It's not that nobody was interested. It's just that nobody seemed ready to make a commitment to her book of poems about Wilhemina Millicent, a basically good girl, with an uncanny knack for being really, really bad. So Berbette shelved her project calling it her "someday" book.
"Dana came and saw our production of The Ugly Duckling," Odle Madden explains, "and she asked us if maybe we could do something with Willie Millie." As it turns out, Berbette's poems were the perfect middle ground between V.O.T.S.'s original mission to stage Southern-flavored works by regional authors and its more recent efforts to develop sophisticated children's theater.
"We knew we needed music," says Virginia Matthews, a V.O.T.S. contributor who composed the score for Willie Millie, "But we weren't sure how to do it." In its first incarnation, Matthews, who also acts in the show, planned to play an electric keyboard live. "But we found out that [choice] confined me too much. I was always stuck in one place." So the group decided to prerecord their material. The instrument of choice? Why a miniature Casio keyboard, a staple of hyperactive 10-year-olds' bedrooms.
Matthews recorded the material at Joey Pegram's tiny home-recording studio. Pegram is a long-time fixture on the local rock scene having played for such local favorites as the Joint Chiefs, Professor Elixir, Hot Monkey, and 611. He currently drums for the Paper Plates, and as it happens, a few of his band mates were hanging out when Matthews made her recording. Tripp Lamkins, who, before putting together the Paper Plates played with such groups as the Grifters, Jetty Webb, and the Villains, was the first person to speak up.
Matthews recalls Lamkins asking, "'Now what is this supposed to be?' He stayed," she says, "and he listened and he watched and kind of stood around, and then he finally said, 'This is pretty cool. Do you mind if I record a bass line?' And I said, 'Are you kidding me?'" Once Lamkins started adding bass lines, the rest of the Paper Plates jumped in on the project.
"And now," Odle Madden says beaming, "we've got this original 40-minute rock musical."
Willie Millie is a play within a play. It's about two little girls goofing off, remembering the events of the very bad day when poor Willie accidentally hurt her favorite teacher's feelings.
"[The girls] decide to put on a play about it," Matthews says. "So I start out just playing the Casio. But by the end, we're so wrapped up in our fantasy world it becomes a big rock show, like Elvis' '68 Comeback. But it's also very '80s. Sometimes it sounds like the Cars or something from Sixteen Candles."
"I'm going to make an executive decision for this show," Odle Madden says. "I'm an executive, and I'm going to make an executive decision. All the tickets are buy-one-get-one-free! We REALLY want people in Memphis to see what we are doing here because we're really talented people, and we're doing really good things. We want Memphis to see that. And we want them to bring their children. When there are a lot of kids in the audience, that's when our shows really come to life."
Wilhemina Millicent's Wonderful World of Imagination is at TheatreWorks Thursday, March 18-Sunday, March 21.