REVIEW: DESIGNING WOMEN LIVE
by Dee Thompson, EDGE Atlanta
I was a huge fan of the TV show “Designing Women” back in the ’80s, so when Onstage Atlanta staged their theatrical version “Designing Women Live,” I had high hopes for the production.
It was fantastic.
I was expecting high camp, and I didn’t see it. This was a tribute to the show, not a tear-down.
The theater is perfectly suited for the production. This tiny space, with only about 150 seats, is tucked into the corner of a suburban shopping center, right between the Big Lots and an antiques store.
That’s sort of indicative of the play itself, which is right between trashy and upscale. The humor is sometimes quite tacky — an extended series of jokes about sperm banks, for instance. The talented performances, though, are upscale.
I didn’t get a program, so I can’t tell you the names of many of the actors, which is a shame. They are part of an ensemble called The Process Theatre Company. Clearly, the theater is on a shoestring budget, with programs not in the budget, at least for this show.
But the performances were so excellent, I really didn’t miss seeing a program.
The amazing thing about “Designing Women Live” was that the performers didn’t merely dress up and mimic their characters, they actually seemed to inhabit their characters.
The actor playing Mary Jo had all of her mannerisms down perfectly, as did the actor playing Charlene. I also was sort of amused to note that while the actors on the TV show were not from Atlanta, or even from the South, the actors portraying all the ladies in this production had much more realistic-sounding Southern accents.
The actor playing Julia (Topher Payne) had the least vocal pyrotechnics to go through, but he captured Dixie Carter’s low voice and clipped southern enunciation perfectly. Of course, during the run of the TV show, Julia was famous for her barely-controlled tirades. Payne had those vocal mannerisms down perfectly, and those were the moments when the audience exploded with laughter.
The actor playing Suzanne seemed highly implausible, at first. He’s a short, chubby man with a low voice. The only thing about him that looked even remotely like “Suzanne Sugarbaker” was the dark hair.
As the play progressed, though, his talented portrayal was evident. He had Delta’s little mincing walk, every vocal nuance, her head toss, the fast line delivery — in short, despite lacking Delta’s beauty-queen looks he more than made up for it with a very skillful performance.
The actor who played Anthony didn’t look or act anything like Meshach Taylor, but that’s OK. His comic timing was excellent, especially when he was in drag during the first part of the show. His appearance was so ludicrous, in an enormous, tacky flowered dress, that it made the “ladies” look gorgeous in comparison.
I felt a bit sorry for the performers who weren’t in drag, because they had to play the straight men, but they were all terrific and contributed to the overall quality of the ensemble.
(Of course, I have to mention here that the big ’80s hair and the shoulder-padded dresses on the stage caused a momentary flashback at first. I felt quite dizzy and had to control the impulse to run out and buy a pair of pantyhose and get a perm in my hair…)
Early in the show, the actor playing Mary Jo used “he” instead of “she” when referring to another character in drag, which elicited snorts of laughter from the audience. That was the only obvious flaw in the entire production, which is sort of amazing.
There were lightning-fast costume and wig changes, and the set was cleverly designed to look like the Sugarbaker living room, with a table and chairs upstage that were lit up for scenes not in the Sugarbaker’s office. The transitions were easy and believable. Kudos to the set designer.
Despite the shoestring budget, I urge readers to check out the website for Onstage Atlanta and go to see one of their plays. Such talented individuals need community support, especially during these tough economic times.