Living in Statesboro, many folks know at least a little about Emma Kelly. If you are curious to learn more about the celebrated chanteuse, the Averitt Center for the Arts and Emma Said Productions have paired up to bring "What's Your Favorite Song? An Evening with Emma Kelly" to the Emma Kelly Theater stage Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., with a matinee show on Sunday at 2 p.m.
Emma Kelly's musical talent was discovered when she was only 3, but she did not play professionally until World War II, when she performed at Fort Stewart, a training facility for GIs. From there, her performance career skyrocketed, and she was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. If you have read or seen the movie version of "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," you were introduced to her as the "Lady of 6,000 Songs."
In fact, the show's title, "What's Your Favorite Song?" was Emma's tagline. When someone sat beside her on the piano bench, "that was the first thing she would ask," said Ross Kelly, the fifth child and first boy in the family, who wrote and directed "What's Your Favorite Song?" as well as a book by the same title in 2015. "Whatever it was, she would play their song for them. It was her signature."
In addition to being a renowned performer, Emma was also wife to George Kelly, a local sign maker, and mother to their 10 children, who were born in near-perfect two-year increments.
"Every one of us spent part of our infancy in a bassinet on top of a piano," Ross said.
In this weekend's show, Ross aims to show us more of Emma than we know from her celebrity. The book and play portray "the juggling act that transpired while Mom developed her musical career, Dad ran his business, and they raised us together," he said.
George was always "the anchor behind the scenes," Ross said.
"Mom was out six, seven nights a week with song-and-dance routines, and Dad kept everything going at home. His support was an essential ingredient to our success, and to Mother's."
George and Emma "could not micromanage" 10 kids, not having "the luxury of time," Ross said. Instead, they raised their children with "guiding principles," a series of "you wills": "You will go to church every Sunday"; "You will work and earn your own money"; "You will be a part of a music show"; "You will learn tap dancing and ballet"; "You will take care of your brothers and sisters," among others.
These principles were "part of the foundation that allowed [George and Emma] to manage their marriage, their respective careers and 10 kids," Ross said. They were also integral to his and his siblings' success: All 10 went on to earn college degrees and grew to be happy, healthy adults with their own families and varied skill sets.
Ross found it "extremely difficult" to whittle his book down to this show's two 45-minute acts.
"You know that Bob Seger lyric, 'What to leave in, what to leave out'?" he asked. "The biggest challenge was condensing the story down to the stage appetite."
In order to fit everything in, he chose to "fast-forward through the births of all 10 children, which spanned 22 years." This meant hurtling through the Great Depression, World War II and more, as the Kelly family grew and thrived.
Difficult though it might have been to condense Emma's rich and busy lifetime, Ross was pleased by the ways in which the stage production enhanced his text.
"We are able to put flesh into the story, which the book alone could not do," he said.
Ross will act as emcee, "telling the story, which is accompanied by music, slides, videos and onstage performances, including original songs of my own, songs mother played with the big bands and old standards."
The cast, featuring four main vocalists and three musicians — a pianist, a bassist and a drummer — will perform Emma's favorite music and "let her speak for herself" through archival materials.
The cover of "What's Your Favorite Song?" features an old photograph of all 10 Kelly children in performance.
"We all grew up doing song-and-dance routines, kind of like the Von Trapp family of the South," said Ross, who attributes the closeness of his siblings, even as adults, to these childhood musical pursuits. "Those routines, those road trips, bound the 10 of us together. Regardless of differences in personality or style, the music was the binding element."
Ross is joined in the show by his sister Emaline in a rendition of one of those old song-and-dance routines, and the program is peppered with the Kelly name, featuring multiple generations. Perhaps most powerful is the show's closing number, performed by the fourth generation of Kellys, who are Ross' and his siblings' grandchildren.
"You can just see the spirit still alive, being perpetuated," Ross said. "Beyond Mother's celebrity, the real takeaway of the story, their real legacy, is the fact that the Kelly family will welcome members 99 and 100 into the fold as of this year. We are continuing the legacy and the spirit of who Mother and Dad were, in terms of family, faith and music."
Join the Kellys at the Averitt Center for the Arts in celebration of Statesboro's beloved Emma Kelly.Tickets are $18 for adults and $10 for youth.