With the debut of Max Makes a Million, the Alliance Theatre celebrates the work of Maira Kalman and her popular storybook pooch

Story by Julie Bookman | Photos by A’riel Tinter

Empty your head and walk around the block. Take delight in the unexpected. Choose to be curious, forever open to possibilities. Don’t fret so much if you don’t know something; it might be better to jump in not knowing everything. Find your way by working hard. Believe that you can do something and you probably can — and will!

Director Liz Diamond and Production Assistant Allison Kelly on the first day of rehearsals for Max Makes a Million.

The books illustrated (and often also written) by Maira Kalman over the last three decades are filled with such notions. Settle down with a Maira Kalman storybook and you’re sure to come away with a sense of positivity. Her 18 books for kids (and about a dozen more for adults) are filled with light, color, hope, happiness, crazy characters, and wonderfully expressive, quirky artwork.

This summer marks the fifth consecutive year that the Alliance Theatre and the High Museum of Art have joined forces to celebrate one prominent children’s book talent. Each effort has included a staged play for family audiences spun from a children’s book by the artist (like 2015’s Knuffle Bunny, by Mo Willems) combined with a special exhibit of that artist’s work.

This year, The Pursuit of Everything: Maira Kalman’s Books for Children opens June 22 and continues through Sept. 15 at the High Museum of Art. In conjunction, the Alliance Theatre presents Max Makes a Million, which is based on Kalman’s jaunty 1990 picture book of the same title. Liz Diamond, who directs the Alliance production in which five actors play multiple roles, is responsible for the stage adaptation. What are the author’s hopes and dreams for a show that revolves around the zany world of Max, a canine with the big dream of being a poet living in Paris?

“Every book I have ever written and painted was in some way meant to be a musical,” says Kalman. “So this is not a dream come true, but a reality come true. I know that it will be fantastic. Smart and funny. I can’t wait to see it.”

Original music and orchestrations for Max are by Atlanta’s Justin Ellington, a versatile Grammy Award-winning musician, composer, and sound designer who has worked with acclaimed artists and many of the top theater companies in the country. Kalman was born in Tel Aviv and raised in the Bronx from age four. Her body of work — both the fanciful wordplay and the art — is widely adored for its sly and seamless blend of heart, whimsy, energy, and sophistication.

Actors Thomas Neal Antwan Ghant and Ann Marie Gideon.

Among her standout titles are Stay Up Late, inspired by David Byrne’s famous Talking Heads song (1985); Next Stop Grand Central (1999); Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey (2002); 13 Words (in 2010 with Lemony Snicket); and four more books starring Max the dog.

She has also penned pictorial essays for The New York Times and is responsible for many New Yorker magazine covers, including the famous 2001 map known as “New Yorkistan,” a response to 9/11 (created with Rick Meyerowitz).

The excitement over all that a bustling city offers abides throughout Kalman’s books. Yes, Max yearns to get to Paris, but he’s still nuts about his New York City home. In the book, it’s “that crazy quivering wondering wild city … a shimmering stimmering triple-decker sandwich kind of city.”

If you’re already familiar with the Max Makes a Million picture book, it should seem downright impossible to imagine any stage piece that won’t be an ear-to-ear, tail-wagging grin.

Actors Tony Manna, Amy Duffy, and Juan Carlos Unzueta.

“Do you think it’s easy for a dog to pack a small brown suitcase, put on a beret, and hop on a plane?” Max asks at the start of his tale. “Ha!”

Max Makes a Million is filled with terrifically kooky characters, from Baby Henry, owner of Baby Henry’s Candy Shop, to Bruno, an artist who paints invisible paintings in the studio he shares with Max.

“Everything I write has some basis in fact,” Kalman says. One of her favorite activities is wandering around the city, collecting material “just by looking at things. “Walking in a park is the great joy and consolation of life. Walking and looking at trees. Listening to the birds. Watching people walk by. Walking leads to an empty brain. An empty brain leaves space for new ideas. A beautiful situation.”

Is Kalman also a dreamer and a poet like her beloved Max? “Yes. Fortunately, my mother never stopped me from daydreaming. The crucial time of a brain unfettered and alive.” Her late mother, Sara Berman, whom she honored with the adult publication Sara Berman’s Closet, opened the door wide for Kalman to find her path as an inimitable artistic force.

Costume renderings on the first day of rehearsals of Alliance Theatre’s 2019/20 world premiere production Max Makes a Million.

Kalman’s childhood was filled with books, concerts, plays, and museums, and she was left to soak it all in without having to be tested. She grew up in “a delightfully cultured house with no oppressive expectations,” and felt free to not take things too seriously. At a young age, Kalman believed in herself – something that has carried her far.

“The most important things are patience and perseverance,” she says. “You have to find your own style. Your own voice. Your own way. It is really about being yourself. Though that takes many years of work and searching.

“But the important thing is not to give up on it.” What does Kalman hope kids — and grownups — will hold in their heads and hearts after seeing Max Makes a Million? “A chipper mood. A song in the heart. A lightness of step,” she says. “A sense of joy, fun, wonder, humanism, inspiration.”

Feature photo: Dan Reardon Director of Education & Associate Artistic Director Chris Moses, Costume Designer Fabian Fidel Aguilar, and Actor Ann Marie Gideon.

About Julie Bookman

Julie Bookman has written about the arts, entertainment and literature as a freelance journalist and, coast to coast, on the staffs of three daily newspapers, including The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She has interviewed such legends as Isaac Bashevis Singer, Liberace, Mary Martin and Mikhail Baryshnikov.

View all posts by Julie Bookman