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Let’s sing a love song to Louise

Louise Mills (background) and director Michele McCrackin contemplate the burning question, “What Is This Thing called Love?” The show – perhaps Mills’ last local production, perhaps not – opens Friday at Bainbridge Performing Arts.   - Photos courtesy of Steve Stolee
Louise Mills (background) and director Michele McCrackin contemplate the burning question, “What Is This Thing called Love?” The show – perhaps Mills’ last local production, perhaps not – opens Friday at Bainbridge Performing Arts.
— image credit: Photos courtesy of Steve Stolee

Michele McCrackin thought she’d retired from local theater.

Until behind-the-scenes doyenne Louise Mills did what she does best – which is to get people to do what they thought they didn’t want to do.

“‘I want to do one more show before I die,’” McCrackin remembers Mills saying. “‘And only if you’ll do it with me.’”

So McCrackin signed on as director, island music veteran Karen Rice joined as musical consultant, and they set about putting on that one last show.

Their collaboration, “Louise Mills Presents: What Is This Thing Called Love?” comes to fruition this weekend at Bainbridge Performing Arts. It’s part Parisian fantasy, part Bainbridge all-star tribute, and fully, ultimately, a love story to Mills.

“She’s our muse, she’s our inspiration,” McCrackin said. “We all are coming around and gathering to do this because of our love of Louise.”

The show’s title, appended by “A Musical Revue,” serves as a road map to its origins as well as its format.

For starters, Mills herself has always “presented,” that is to say, produced, but never performed. In 1956, she and other island arts enthusiasts formed the island’s first community theater, Bainbridge Light Opera Association, which eventually became Bainbridge Performing Arts. She, McCrackin and others also co-founded Island Theatre in 1994.

Fund-raising for local theater became Mills’ ongoing pursuit over the years; the revue became her preferred medium for both practical and artistic reasons.

Staging big productions had always been expensive. Yet Bainbridge always seemed to have an abundance of talented singers and musicians, some former professionals, who craved a chance to perform. And, Mills stressed, who were willing to do it for free. All she had to do was gather them together, put the men in tuxes and the women in lovely gowns in the town’s existing venues, and a show was born.

“If you’ve got all those things going for you, you might as well take advantage of it,” Mills said.

Mills began collecting vintage fashion pieces at the age of 10, starting with hand-me-downs from family members. Many of the women in “Louise Mills Presents” will wear evening gowns from her vast collection as they evoke the fictional Parisian nightclub “Chez Louise” – a nod to another of Mills’ shows.

McCrackin has observed that as soon as singers put on their period evening wear, their moods change.

“They move differently, and they sing differently,” she said.

McCrackin is aware of the kitsch factor that could come into play in a show like this, but it’s all part of the fun.

“In a sense, there’s this fine line between corny and lovely. And there are a couple of things in the show that I’d say if they weren’t done right, they’d be corny,” she said.

But, she added, it’s for Louise.

As for Mills herself, she embarked on the process by saying the show could be her last. Now, she admits that she’s not ruling anything out, although McCrackin isn’t so sure she’s up for more.

“This is a one-shot deal, this is my love-for-Louise show,” she said.

But she recently noticed a twinkle in Mills’ eye.

“I said, ‘Louise, don’t even go there.’”

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Croon and swoon

“Louise Mills Presents” runs at 7:30 p.m. April 11&12 and 3 p.m. April 13 at BPA. Call 842-8569.

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