When I attended the opening night of Peninsula Community Theatre’s production of The Hallelujah Girls, I was struck by a feeling of déjà vu. The play utilizes familiar tropes that seem to relay the message, “Thank you for being a friend.” If this is the kind of lighthearted fun that appeals to you, then you’ll love it more than your luggage. If you are confused by my metaphors, read on and it will all make sense to you.
The Hallelujah Girls was directed by Al Buchanan, a veteran performer and musical director. This is not a musical, so it is interesting that he would take on this project. Lighting was managed by John Wilt, and Cheryl Nabati was in charge of the colorful costumes utilized in the production.
I’m just going to come right out and say it. This production blatantly borrows themes from Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias, while obviously copying the comedy stylings of T.V.’s The Golden Girls. I can’t say this is my favorite script, due to its derivative nature. I understand that imitation is the highest form of flattery, but this goes beyond being a simple homage to another work. It simply lacks originality. It is important to note however, that the fault of the script bears no relation to the ability and talent of the the cast, or the production team. They honestly made the best of what they had to work with.
In a nutshell, the play centers around Sugar Lee Thomkins, who has invested her life savings into an old church that she converted into a day spa for her community. Apparently, this isn’t the first time she has put all her eggs in one basket, and she’s risking her future with this undertaking. Her friends make every effort to help her realize her dream, despite all having their own issues.
Mavis (Linda Marley Smith) is a free-spirit still living a raucous lifestyle despite her years. Somehow, she seems the most centered of the characters. Carleen (Patricia Ployd) is a widow who has given up on love, but has somehow managed to attract a suiter. That suiter would be Porter (Ben Jenkins), a simple man with what could only be described as “Mommy Issues”. Nita (Bonnie Carlson) is a sweet soul, but has a tendency to let her imagination run away with her. As she does so, she enters a trance-like state and drags us kicking and screaming into her personal reality. Crystal (Jane Martin) delights in seasonal costumes and silly songs. Her antics may seem childish, but she is loyal to a fault.
Sugar Lee’s life is complicated by financial challenges, and the intrusion of an old flame. Her ex-fiance Bobby Dwayne (Ron Bianchi) has inadvertently entered the picture as a capable handyman. Although he doesn’t want to become entangled with the woman he feels he wronged years ago, he feels obligated to help her with her dilemma. Things start to fall apart quickly when Sugar Lee’s rival arrives to make their lives miserable. Bunny Sutherland (Cynthia Tademy) is a spiteful competitor who will stop at nothing to wrestle ownership of the property from Sugar Lee, and is a constant thorn in her side.
As a whole, the cast’s performance was very good, but not perfect. I think I need to make a point not to attend opening night for many of these shows, as many of them seemed to suffer from what I could only describe as opening night jitters. The jokes in this production are unabashedly obvious with definitive punch lines, but something was lost in the delivery with the majority of them, and they simply didn’t work. You wouldn’t know it by the audience’s reaction. Everyone had a good time, but I think they were getting quite a bit of support from friends and family. I do predict future performances will be better, as long as the cast becomes more comfortable and learns to better nail their comedic timing. On the plus side, it kept a steady pace, and didn’t suffer from moments of awkward silence, which usually kills it for me.
Cheryls Nabati’s costumes for Crystal were a laugh riot, and were a highlight of the show. Costumes were on par, and special care was taken that the characters all had a different look from scene to scene or season to season. The set was was well put together, dominated by a large simulated stained glass window. The lighting behind the window, provided by John Wilt, added some much needed color to the stage. The set was dressed to give it a realistic look, however scene transitions were long and took away from the pace of the show. There was a reference in the script about an old still that was found on the property, but it was only mentioned. It would have been interesting to see an actual prop make an appearance since it seemed to be the MacGuffin that drove the resolution of the story. Sound effects were few and far between, but effects used were a little louder than they needed to be.
Stand out performers include Linda Marley Smith as Mavis Flowers. She seemed to perform as a cut above the rest of the cast. Ron Bianchi as Bobby Dwayne Dillahunt brought a campiness that this production definitely needed. His characterization gave us somebody to root for. In contrast Cynthia Tadamy managed to craft her character Bunny Sutherland into a villain we loved to hate.
Although The Hallelujah Girls has some minor challenges to overcome, I do think it is worth the night out. It’s clearly not a work of art, but it is fun. It is not intended to be a masterpiece, but is simply entertainment. I look forward to a successful turn-out for this production.
The Hallelujah Girls runs through December 16th at Peninsula Community Theatre in Newport News. Get your tickets here!