REVIEW: Come Experience Joie de Vivre at Meadow Brook Theatre’s Charismatic Production of ‘The IT Girl’

Frequently, people go to the movies to escape their real-life woes. Whereas as theatre tends to bring people together for a shared experience. As Meadow Brook Theatre (MBT) closes out its 2018-2019 season it gives audiences the best of both worlds with The IT Girl—a creative hybrid of musical and movie magic running now until June 23 on the campus of Oakland University (OU) in Rochester.

With book by Michael Small and BT McNicholl, music by Paul McKibbins, and lyrics by BT McNicholl, The IT Girl is a musical adaptation of the 1927 Paramount movie IT starring the darling of the day, Clara Bow. The credit for the birth of ‘IT’ goes to a British novelist and scriptwriter named Elinor Glyn who wrote romance (often risqué) fiction during the early 20th century. So, what is ‘IT?’ Basically, that quality possessed by someone who draws all others with its magnetic force. Or as man-about-town Monty Montgomery (Dan Fenaughty) says, ‘It is a hint of sex and a whiff of intelligence.’ And this play has both in spades.

L to R: Jackie Raye as ‘Adela Van Norman’ and Sara Kmiec as ‘Betty Lou Spence’ in ‘The It Girl’ – now playing at MBT.

Photo Courtesy of Sean Carter Photography

Set in New York City during the late 1920s, the stage is awash in understated art deco elegance featuring muted gray tones to highlight the black and white setting. In the middle is a screen which in true silent film form announces scene changes and action throughout the performance; transporting the viewer, for just a moment, to the opulent movie palaces of the day.

As the play opens the phrase ‘Once upon a time…’ is splashed on the screen. Almost simultaneously a young lady dressed in colorful garb appears onstage hunched over a nickelodeon. As she peers into the machine images of Keystone Kops, Rudolph Valentino, and Harold Lloyd flash on the screen. She longs for the clarity she sees in the “Black and White World” and the nickelodeon obliges by suddenly transporting her into the story of the idealistic heroine, Betty Lou Spence (Sara Kmiec), a lingerie clerk at Waltham’s Department Store. Kmiec is irresistibly incandescent as spunky Betty Lou and displays a maturity in this role that extends beyond her years. In fact, I was surprised to learn she is only in her senior year at Wayne State University. Her bio mentions a move to New York after graduation and I have no doubt, we will be hearing more from her in the future.

Now every story needs a villain and Jackie Raye is deliciously diabolical in her MBT debut as Adela Van Norman. And while she’s not tying Betty Lou to train tracks, she is working hard behind-the-scenes (as she belts out in “A Perfect Plan”) to ensure she snags the handsome, wealthy, and socially connected Jonathan Waltham (Nathan Cockroft). Jonathan is a bit of a stuffed shirt interested mostly in tradition and the status quo, a part Cockroft convincingly conveys. He’s also in a bit of a pickle trying to figure out how to drum up more business for his family’s failing department store. Enter Monty, a lovable rascal who is fabulously funny thanks to great physical acting by Dan Fenaughty. The great thing about Monty is he’s a nitwit and he knows it. He owns his silver spoon and sense of style without shame. It’s Monty who comes up with the IT-Girl contest idea, which becomes the catalyst for not only trying to save the store but also for hopefully giving Betty Lou the happy ending she craves (and the one Jonathan has yet to discover he needs). Rounding out this exceptionally talented cast are Larissa Klinger (The Spitfire Grill) most notably as Daisy Plover and down-on-her-luck single mom Molly; Stephanie Wahl as nosy neighbor Mrs. Sullivan and manipulating mother Mrs. Van Norman; and Ron Williams as the beleaguered store manager Mr. Notting. Never has black and white held such a vibrancy of colorful characters and an exuberance exuded from its actors. Honestly, you can’t help but want to get up and join them in all the singing and dancing.

Do the men have ‘IT?’ Probably not, but they’re still entertaining to watch.
From L to R: Ron Williams as ‘Mr. Notting,’ Nathan Cockroft as ‘Jonathan Waltham,’ and Dan Fenaughty as ‘Monty Montgomery’ – Photo courtesy of Sean Carter Photography

While all the actors are on point, there are those behind-the-scenes who are also major stars in this production. The black and white costume design by Corey Collins who is assisted by Shireen Unvala, feels fun and fresh and really allows the talent of the actors to shine. Such an impeccable eye for detail. And how much fun Jeremy Benton and Heidi Joosten must have had as the choreographer and music director, respectively. I also can’t overlook the scenic design by Jen Price Fick, assisted by Jasmine Radetski, lighting design by Matthew J. Fick, and sound design by Mike Duncan. Keeping it all running smoothly is Terry W. Carpenter as the stage manager. A well-earned round of applause for all. The integration between the stage and screen action is seamless. And I have to mention how the white pancake makeup paired with black lips really makes you feel as if you are watching a silent film. Of course, the overexaggerated expressions, quirky mannerisms, and nasally voices help as well.

Does Jonathan save the family business? Does Betty Lou get her happily ever after? Why spoil the surprise? The IT Girl offers lots of wonderful and witty dialogue brimming with 1920s slang and scads of melodramatic flair. In his notes, artistic director Travis W. Walter likens this play to a ‘stylistic love letter to silent films on the Meadow Brook Theatre stage.’ And that description hits the nail on the head. Now it is your turn to reciprocate and shower this production with the accolades it richly deserves. As the song says, ‘You know it when you’ve got it,’ and this show definitely has ‘IT.’ So do yourself a favor, ‘close your cynical eyes and try a new point of view’ with the cast of The IT Girl. It really is the bees-knees.

The performance runs a little over two hours with a 15-minute intermission.

Tickets range from $30 to $45 and are available by calling the Meadow Brook Theatre box office at 248-377-3300 or going online at Student discounts are available at the box office. Groups of eight or more should call 248-370-3316 for group pricing.

The IT Girl is made possible through the generous support of Extended Stay Hotels, The Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, The National Endowment for the Arts, The Kresge Foundation, The Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation, The Shubert Foundation, and the Meadow Brook Theatre Guild.

Meadow Brook Theatre is located on the campus of Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. Meadow Brook Theatre is a nonprofit, cultural institution serving southeast Michigan for more than 53 years. For additional information, please call 248-377-3300.

About Sarah Hovis

Freelance wordsmith, arts appreciator, grammar geek, sports spectator, stationery snob, and world traveler, Sarah charts her own course as the owner of saliho creative. She uses her creative mind and engaging dialogue to fearlessly bring the written word to life in print and online… all while keeping a watchful eye out for the next literary adventure. You can reach her at

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