Reviews: Janey Makes A Play

For our second documentary review of the day, Dana reviews Janey Makes A Play

What might you get if you crossed Waiting for Guffman with The Golden Girls? It wouldn’t exactly be Janey Makes a Play, but it would come close – Janey Callahan-Chin, the nonagenarian star of this sweetly off-beat documentary, brings to mind all the best characteristics of grandmotherly little old ladies, and she instills her love of theater and the arts into her town with the kind of pizazz – and the small-town amateur theater mishaps –  that would make Christopher Guest’s Corky St. Clair proud.

In fact, it’s difficult not to think of Guffman watching Janey’s story, as it is precisely this kind of small-town home movie documentary that Guest’s film spoofs. Its cast of Rio Vista, California, residents from the high school Broadway hopeful to the barbecue purveyor would seem caricatures of themselves, but for the genuine warmth exuded by their sincerity. There is room in Janey’s productions for anyone with a desire to tread the boards, and with such varied talent, she finds a way to bring her work to life while helping each performer to achieve a sense of belonging as part of the whole. We hear from all kinds, athletes and misfit teenagers, older men and women – if they want a part in Janey’s play, there is always room for new talent.

Janey herself, as the focus of much of the documentary, is creative and spry, and watching her light up as she recounts her community theater triumphs is joyful and proud. She has written and directed musicals since 2002, bringing her friends, neighbors, and former students together in celebration of their own talents and the sheer passion she has for her craft. She walks us through her process as we follow her from script to stage, explaining how she began her theatrical career as a dancer and choreographer, even working with the famous Lennon sisters in the 1950s. Much of her story takes place in Rio Vista, where she became a teacher and started what is today a rather large family.

Janey’s latest play is based in Rio Vista’s history, circa the Great Depression, and we are treated to a glimpse of the town’s historical museum from its town historian, Phil Pezzaglia, who serves as a consultant for Janey’s script. Framed by the stories of Rio Vista’s past generations, people all over the town have a voice in this play – it is the story of their families, the shops and businesses they founded, some of which are still run and owned by the descendants of those who were there in the 1930s.

Janey Makes a Play is not a revolutionary story – but it doesn’t masquerade as one. It simply tells the tale of a group of people, who enjoy theater for theater’s sake, illustrating how practically anyone from anywhere can bring a talent they might not share with the world at large and find a quiet sort of success in doing something they enjoy. It opens the door on a group of ordinary eccentrics, accomplishing something that happens every day, but in their own way and with a gentle town pride.

Shot with intimacy and candor, Janey Makes a Play is a simple slice-of-life story about regular folks with an extraordinary love of musical theater that brings their small community together under the direction of a fussy, funny lady who, even into her nineties, dances without music just because she feels like it.

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-Dana Culling