Swift Creek Mill’s ‘The Hallelujah Girls’ is like ‘The Golden Girls,’ without the gold
The Hallelujah Girls is a follow up to the much better written big hit of the last two seasons, “The Dixie Swim Club” written by the same playwrights who wrote episodes of “The Golden Girls.”
The Hallelujah Girls is best described as light situation comedy. No big issues. No death, no violence, no foul language, no sex. G-rated for all audiences.
Its plot is slight and non-threatening to the mind or soul. It is what you want after eating a three course meal. Something that won’t upset the stomach.
The plot surrounds a group of women over 50. One rails against her annoying husband. One has problems with her no good grown up son. One has buried three husbands and is known as the local “black widow” and one whose only task in the play is to dress up in elaborate costumes for every holiday, including Chinese New Year (which I’m sad to say, was slightly racist).
The story involves Sugar Lee (Vicki McLeod) who has bought the church building where the women worshipped as girls, with plans to turn it into a beauty parlor and spa.
The evil rich woman in town, Bunny Sutherland (played with gusto by Catherine Butler-Cooper) wanted the property but lost out. The plot surrounds her attempts to get it back to build a Museum (most likely to herself). Bunny arranges for Sugar Lee’s teenage beau who broke her heart, Bobby Dwayne Dillahunt (Richard Koch) to be the contractor to install the spa and then attempt to bring the property up to Code.
Of course, mayhem ensues. Of course, they all live happily ever after.
Director Tom Width has brought back a majority of the actresses that made “The Dixie Swim Club” such a hit.
And the stage is filled with top notch talent. Most are proven and well respected within the theatre community. Jaqueline Jones, Jennifer Frank, Jodie Smith Strickler, Joy Williams, Catherine Butler-Cooper, Richard Koch, Vicki McLeod and Mike White. Most of whom consistently do excellent work.
It is a good time for the audience. It is corny and broad. It is clean and non-threatening. It’s cute and amusing. But there is no depth to the story and, as a result, there is little depth to the acting. Even Maude lived through breast cancer. But not here.
Which is fine. It is what it is. I just don’t know why they ask critics to come critique it.
But they did. And I will.
Given the predictability of the story and broad generalizations of character, the cast had difficulties finding ways to improve the material.
The actor who comes out best is Joy Williams. The cards are stacked that we would enjoy her character most because she is the one who dresses up as holiday icons, from the Statute of Liberty to Father Christmas and Love Bunny Cupid. Her character, Crystal Hart (even her clichéd name plays into the perception), only wants to entertain and give happiness. Ms. Williams is very funny indeed, using each entrance as a short ballet of the crazed. She hits her set pieces cleanly and effectively. The role is over the top and another actress might have made it unbearable.
Although I thought her Geisha portrayal for Chinese New Year on the edge of good taste, it provided my favorite bit of the evening. Instead of chopsticks holding up the bun in her hair, she used two back scratchers. A hilarious sight gag that paid off when she took them out to massage the face of a stressed friend. A+.
The downside is that Crystal is not allowed to be a real person. She has no story, no backstory and no arc. Her sole purpose seems to be as a sight gag. Ms. Williams is committed to her character but the “why” of her character is never explored. Poor writing. At times she must remain onstage after the gag and wait to join the action again. She is not helped by being directed to sit around and flip through magazines and do nothing.
Jody Strickler Smith also comes off respectively well. She has the sassy “Shirley MacLaine” role in this piece. She rails about the inadequacies of her husband and the disappointments of long term marriage. Ms. Smith is a very likeable actress with impeccable timing who hits every mark and drained every laugh to be had. Her dialogue is pretty much stereotypical wife nagging and while done well, it doesn’t rise to anything beyond that. What was missing was the inspiration of something new, something we haven’t seen before, a more effective “hook.”
Jaqueline Jones scores some funny moments when she relates what’s going onstage to romance novels she’s read. However, after the second time, you see it coming, after the fourth time you wish the authors would find something more interesting for this wonderful actress to do.
Richard Koch plays the old beau/handyman Bobby Wayne Dillahunt (where do they get these names?) with sexy legs (don’t quit your day job) to amusing effect, but again, the handyman on “One Day at A Time” was more interesting, proving even situation comedies can explore creative ways of doing the same thing.
Jennifer Frank, who was so vibrant in “The Dixie Swim Club” was reduced to an after-thought with little investment in the main story line. Vicki McLeod, an extremely talented actress who doesn’t come out to play that often is stuck in “normal” gear playing the central character around whom all others spin.
None of these marvelous actors can give a bad performance, but other than Ms. Williams, none found the zing, no one created moments that caught the eye or perked up interest.
The only clunker in the cast was Mike White as the postmaster Porter Padgett. Mr. White yelled all his lines and went from normal to looney toons with no transitions at all. An over the top, unregulated performance.
I could go on but AARP jokes and varicose veins humor left me cold and a little depressed. Real life is nowhere as cliché as these women’s lives seemed to be. Every impediment was resolved by Act Three and life in Sleepy Town, Georgia went on for these slightly tarnished Golden Girls.
Should we expect exceptional, creative acting? Always. Even with a script this lame? Yes, that’s the actor’s job. What did the director contribute? Well if he held them back in favor of safe predictable performances, then he did a disservice. If the actors failed to thrive or be inventive on their own, then he did not coax better performances out of them.
The staging was fine but uninteresting and did not contribute to any tension that might have been found. The decision to drop the curtain throughout the show to hang holiday pieces was clunky. Why not have the actors on stage (who work in the shop) do that in full view?
The set by Tom Width was very nice but uninteresting. Joe Doran’s lighting was easy on the eye and the play didn’t require much in the way of effects. The costumes by Maura Lynch Cravey were colorful and serviceable but uninteresting except for the splashy holiday costumes that we’ve seen at Party City before.
People say, “its dinner theatre, give them a break”, or in other companies, “they’re young, give them a break”, or its “professional, community based theatre,” give them a break.” When consumers are asked to shell out $35 to watch theatre, they are entitled to value for their money. If we start expecting less, we deserve the mediocrity they give us.
There is great theatre that happens in this town all the time. Maybe Ma and Pa America in the counties won’t sit still for it, but it’s a learning process. We wean them off the television quality they’re used to and show them how magnificent live theatre can be.
Swift Creek can do that. They have done it before. They don’t come anywhere close to getting it done with The Hallelujah Girls, but I’m sure it’ll be wildly popular nevertheless.
“I felt much better about my donation.”September 28, 2016
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