COLUMBIA – Musical theater icon Bob Fosse once told dancers that they needed to be good actors, too.
Alexandra Milner takes that statement to heart.
What: 41st Annual MU Summer Repertory Theatre
When: “I Love You, You’re Perfect Now Change,” July 8-26. “Steel Magnolias,” July 16-31. Comedies in Concert, July 14, 21 and 28 (different show on each night). All weekday and Saturday shows will start at 8 p.m. All Sunday shows will start at 2 p.m.
Where: "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" and "Steel Magnolias" will perform in the Rhynsburger Theatre on the MU campus. Comedies in Concert will perform in the Corner Playhouse on the MU campus.
Cost: “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” is $15. “Steel Magnolias” is $13. Comedies in Concert are $5 each. Or there is a $38 season ticket that gets you into the two main productions and each of the three comedies in concert. For ticket information call the box office, 882-PLAY, or visit the Web site theatre.missouri.edu.
“You can be a dancer, but if you don’t have any emotion to display, it’s like vacant movement,” she said
Drawing from her skills as an actor, singer and dancer, Milner has spent six hours a day rehearsing for roles in two of MU Summer Repertory Theatre’s three plays.
She is one of two actors cast in the main productions: “Steel Magnolias” and “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.”
These shows, along with three smaller original comedies rehearsed and performed on the same day as "Comedies in Concert," complete the season beginning Wednesday and running through July 30.
With two plays to perform, it's often back-to-back rehearsals for Milner. From 1 until 4 p.m., she can be found rehearsing the warm, optimistic beauty shop owner from Robert Harling's play "Steel Magnolias."
A pair of black-and-white polka-dotted heels signals Milner’s persona as Truvy Jones, from the play, which chronicles the laughs and trials of six women in a Louisiana beauty shop.
Because she considers herself a dancer above all, finding the right movement is the first step in Milner’s process of creating a character.
“I try taking myself out of who I am as a 23-year-old and putting myself into the body of a 40-year-old,” said Milner, who’s been dancing since she was 3 years old.
Although Milner moves around her beauty counter with Truvy’s imprecise, comfortable step, she admits that she still does not really have the woman figured out.
“She’s an optimist, but I don’t know why,” Milner said about the character who always sees the silver lining, even though her husband lives on their couch and her boys are leaving for school.
When Truvy is asked about her boys coming home for Christmas, instead of being sad about their absence, she jokes about seeing one of them at Thanksgiving: “Louie brought his new girlfriend over, and the nicest thing I can say about her is all her tattoos are spelled correctly.”
“There’s this poignant kind of underpinning to her jollity,” said Cheryl Black, director of the play. “She really has got a sad life in that sense, and the beauty shop is her haven from it.”
Although Milner’s Truvy is not yet fully developed, she is always searching. During downtime at rehearsal, Milner continued to hone her movements.
In the two years she has known and worked with Milner, Black said, she has been continually impressed with her versatility.
“And I always believe (her characters). Whether it’s Alex in a big blond wig, or a big red wig or a big black wig … she’s always in a wig,” said Black, laughing about Milner’s wide variety of roles for MU.
Before Milner began rehearsals for the summer theater, she played Shakespeare’s beautiful-but-confused lover Olivia in MU’s production of “Twelfth Night.” Since then, she has jumped approximately four centuries, dropped the poetic verse and picked up a Southern accent.
“I’m a huge fan, frankly,” said Black, who watched Milner play both characters. “She’s got that thing that makes you look at her.”
By 8 p.m., Milner has moved from styling hair to traipsing across the stage in a wildly different show with a wildly different feel. In “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” Milner plays multiple characters in the campy musical revue that puts the spotlight on the sometimes ridiculous conventions of dating and relationships.
As director Jim Miller gave notes to the cast, he complimented Milner’s performance. “I don’t know what this show is, but there has to be a sparkle in your eye like there is in Alex’s eye.”
Despite her part, Milner, who switched to a theater major from textile and apparel management in fall 2007, said she has never considered herself a singer. When she first auditioned for a musical, she chose to sing 16 bars of “Roxie” from the Broadway musical "Chicago" because they were simple.
But that is not how Miller remembers his first interaction with her two years ago.
“She sang, and she scared the hell out of me. She was a ferocious performer,” Miller said. “And I thought, my god, this woman is a tiger.”
Since then, Milner has earned a spot in every one of Miller’s musicals. He also takes advantage of her background, putting her to work as his assistant choreographer.
“She was dancing in one of those dance numbers, and I just knew that she got me and I got her,” he said about his first production with her.
This time around, Milner is playing characters that range from a sniveling, embarrassing girl who just wants to be a “babe” and a reserved, kind old widow considering one last love with a widower she met at a funeral.
Miller compared her style to that of Meryl Streep, Gwen Verdon or Carol Burnett and said she is a rare young character actress.
“I like the depth of doing a straight play, but it’s fun to break out in song and dance. Why the hell not?” Milner said.
Milner is not the only actor playing multiple roles; she said that both the play and the musical are really ensemble shows.
“It’s not about what I do at the end of the day,” she said.
This fall will be Milner’s last semester at MU. As she looks ahead to graduation, she is trying to savor the rest of her time in academic theater, which she said has been a privilege. Her mentality is, “OK, you’re tired but this isn’t going to last forever, so enjoy it.”
Miller said she is committed to the production process.
“If she’s not called for rehearsal, she comes anyway because she can’t stand not to be here,” he said. “That usually means you’re going to have a career.”
One can only hope, Milner said. In December, she plans to move to Los Angeles and see how far her “hope and blind luck” will take her.
“All I can do when I get out there is unpack my suitcase, blow up my air mattress and start setting up meetings,” she said.
Above all else, she said she has to remain persistent because success is subjective. No matter what happens for her in L.A., Milner values the criticism and encouragement she has gotten the past two years at MU.
“It’s good to have an honest family around you in the theater community to be real with you.”