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Musical takes humorous, real look at breast cancer

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Eileen Mitchard knows she's fighting an uphill battle.

"Selling tickets to a show about breast cancer is like selling tickets to a root canal. It's a hard sell," she said.

But after interviewing dozens of breast cancer survivors for the stage production "Breast in Show: The New Musical About Saving the Ta-Tas," the show's executive producer found out the best way to do it is through laughter.

"Every single person we talked to (said) humor was a necessary part of going through one of these awful journeys,"  Mitchard said. "People tell you about the funny things that happen along the way and the situations that go along with it. That's why the humor is from real stories that we put in."

The musical had its first performances in the Washington, D.C., area, and will be produced for the first time away from that area next month by Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse in Rock Island. A local cast, including several names familiar to area theatergoers, will give two performances. A portion of the sales will go to Gilda's Club Quad-Cities.

The mix of humor and emotions is evident in an early song in the show called "Blah, Blah, Blah," Mitchard and another woman involved in the production said.

"We heard time and time again that when people are in a doctor's office and hear 'You have breast cancer,' they never hear anything after that," Mitchard said, on a phone conference call with music and lyric writer Joan Cushing. "What (Cushing) did with that song at the beginning of the show, it gives permission to laugh and to identify."

Mitchard said she had been working on the idea of a musical about breast cancer since 2009. The finished product, she said, comes halfway between the light-hearted "Menopause! The Musical" and the more serious "Vagina Monologues."

"This show has a genuineness and a spirit of what we're trying to accomplish," Mitchard said. "It'll make you laugh, it'll make you cry. It'll make you do both at the same moment, but it ends on a hopeful note."

Neither Mitchard nor Cushing, nor the female director and scriptwriter, have had breast cancer. Cushing's sister was given the diagnosis. However, she stopped working on "Breast of Show" when her husband was diagnosed with, and eventually died from, pancreatic cancer.

"I dropped out of everything, including this musical," she said. "I was just in a total panic. I went through this journey with him and I saw it all first-hand. Before, I was writing about something. But when I went back to the project I felt like I had something to say. With all of my experiences with him, I felt humor."

Mitchard said she had been a fan of Cushing since seeing the performer in a cabaret about 20 years earlier in D.C. Cushing has also written several musical adaptations of childrens books, most of which have been performed by Circa.

The cast of the Circa show is Darla Niksich, Erin Churchill, Jenny Winn, Jalayne Riewerts, Lora Adams, Ron May and Jody Alan Lee. May also is the musical director, and Marc Ciemiewicz directs the show.

Mitchard stated emphatically that she wants to take the show to New York, hopefully within the next five years. It is getting several more performances throughout the country, and she hopes it can get a debut at a major breast cancer conference in Dallas in December 2014.

"We really threaded the needle of being very respectful and paying honor and tribute to the experience, but also telling it like it is in terms of what goes on between the doctors and the patients, between the patients and spouses, between patients and patients," Mitchard said.

"We're looking at it from a perspective that says, like the people who did 'Rent,' that this is an issue that needs to be looked at," she continued. "And we want to be the change. Musical theater can affect change in a way that no other medium can."


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