When I walk through the door of musician Josh Farmer's house, actor Jeff Medley is in the middle of singing the Mister Rogers song "You're Growing," as Farmer plays along on the piano. While still singing, Medley gets up and ushers me in politely, without missing a beat.
Like Fred Rogers did during every episode of his iconic children's program, I take off my shoes and sweater and settle down onto the couch. "You used to creep and crawl real well, but then you learned to walk real well," Medley sings. "There was a time you'd coo and cry. But then you learned to talk and, my!" Medley now directs the song to Jude, the dog, who appears to be happily mesmerized by Medley's calming eye contact. On the couch next to me, Roger Moquin is the sole rhythm section, slapping brushes on a hand drum. When the song ends, Medley says a few words about growing up and then transitions to the next number, a kind of awkward one called "I'm Going to Marry Mom." By the time he's finished singing the outro, "Such a Good Feeling," Medley's repeated the entire 1981 Mister Rogers album Won't You Be My Neighbor verbatim.
If you'd forgotten about the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, you remember now. There isn't a cynical bone in the room.
Medley and Farmer have been working on a theatrical version of the album for two years now—backburnering it for other projects before finally readying it for performance in front of an audience. Medley is a lanky actor with a thin, handsome face featuring arched eyebrows and a ski-slope nose. He can easily look fantastically villainous in a way Tim Burton would drool over. When he first made the Mister Rogers project public, he received mixed reactions of excitement and trepidation. One person worried that the performance would be a parody, a sort of roasting of a beloved legend.
"She said, 'This better not be some hipster dealio,'" says Medley. "And I told her that it's not a hipster dealio, trust me. And then she just messaged me a couple of nights ago in long paragraphs expressing how strong her feelings are about Fred Rogers and I tried to appease her."
You can't really blame the public, for worrying about the project. Medley has played enough cheeky and bedeviling characters to make that connection. He played Fagin in MCT's Oliver, the butler in the Montana Actors' Theatre's 2009 production of The Rocky Horror Show, Estragon in Waiting for Godot and most recently the spooky, anemic doctor in Viscosity Theatre's Crime in a Madhouse. In addition, Mister Rogers has some strange urban legends surrounding him. One rumor posits that he was a former Navy Seal and his arms were covered in tattoos–a rumor that was dispelled during an episode where Rogers goes swimming. Other rumors are more unkind, such as that he was a child molester, and that his character Mr. McFeely hinted at that past. There's a mystery surrounding him, if for no other reason that his total lack of pessimism made him seem weird at times. His innocent songs, some of which have antiquated turns of phrase, could easily be misconstrued into innuendo–"if your mind is already in the gutter," adds Medley.
But that was never on Medley's mind. He picked up the record at a flea market when he was 10 years old and he and his younger brother played it constantly, even when Medley was discovering rock and roll. Later, he watched the YouTube video of Rogers defending PBS to the U.S. Senate Subcommittee in 1969 where, in his distinctly calming voice, he says, "One of the first things a healthy child learns in a family is trust," and goes on to put his trust in the subcommittee to support children's programming. And so, for Medley, unearthing the album and doing a tribute to that childhood artifact meant doing it without making fun of it, without any extra twists.
Besides musicians accompanying the performance, artist Jack Metcalf has created puppets from the Neighborhood of Make-Believe including X the Owl and Lady Elaine Fairchild. Actress Lily Gladstone makes an appearance. Medley encourages children to attend. The performance will include an intermission that happens at the point where the 1961 record is flipped over.
The songs, strange as they are, will probably make an impression on adults and children alike with lyrics like "the very same people who are good sometimes are the very same people who are bad sometimes," and "It's you I like, whether you live in a dark house or a light house." But it's Medley's careful rendering—walking that fine line between playfulness and reverence—that makes this project so interesting.
"One of the catalyzing factors was hearing Rufus Wainwright's 2007—I think I borrowed it from the library in 2008 or 2009—tribute to Judy Garland, Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall, recreating a famous 1961 concert/double album," Medley says. "I would be the first to admit I am very far from Rufus and Fred is certainly a world or so apart from Judy, but maybe not so much. Parallels could be drawn from her looking over the rainbow to Oz and [Mister Rogers'] trolley going through the tunnel into the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, both magical worlds of infinite possibilities. Anyway, I realized that it could be done and should be done because I wanted it to be done."
Won't You Be My Neighbor opens Fri., Feb. 1, at the Downtown Dance Collective. Show continues Sat., Feb. 2, at 2 PM and the following weekend, Fri., Feb. 8, at 8 PM and Sat., Feb. 9, at 2 PM. $10/$5 for those under 18. Bring binoculars to see Jack Metcalf's detailed artistry.