Tina Jo Wallace, Michelle Bradley, and Elizabeth Woos in The Hallelujah Girls. Photo Courtesy of Derby Dinner Playhouse.
The Hallelujah Girls
By Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten
Directed by Bekki Jo Schneider
Review by Craig Nolan Highley
Entire contents are copyright 2016, Craig Nolan Highley. All rights reserved.
Something southern-fried is cooking up over at the Derby Dinner Playhouse, and I’m not talking about the chicken on the buffet! Serving up another portion by the formulaic but crowd-pleasing Jones/Hope/Wooten playwrights, their current production of The Hallelujah Girls should please fans of the writing team as well as the DDP’s core audience.
The show tells the story of a group of friends who decide to open a health and beauty parlor, preciously called Spa-Dee-Dah! in the remains of an abandoned church building. The leader, Sugar Lee (Tina Jo Wallace) is full of determination and good intentions but has her hands full keeping the rest motivated. Carlene (Elizabeth Loos) has resigned herself to remaining a lonely widow after burying three husbands, and Nita (Michele Bradley) loses herself in romance novels to escape the living Hell of raising a shiftless son. Mavis’s (Rita Thomas) marriage is deader than a doornail, and Crystal (Debbie King-Raque) so loves every single holiday that she obsessively dresses in costumes and re-writes the words to Christmas carols to match every other celebration. Conflict arises when a former love interest arrives unexpectedly, a marriage proposal comes out of the blue, and an evil society queen vows to steal the building away from them.
It really is a rather silly show but it definitely brings the laughs, and the cast certainly gives it their all. All of the ladies are well-cast, but Thomas is the scene stealer here. Her Mavis is a curmudgeonly delight, and when her character cuts loose later in the show it is comedy gold. Wallace is also quite fun as Sugar Lee (I ask you, can these names be any more precious?) and she creates a spunky hero you can really root for. I also have to give kudos to King-Raque’s turn as Crystal; she’s an absolute riot appearing in a different over-the-top outfit in every scene, and her seeming dim-wittedness enables her to save the day in the end. Brian Bowman’s hunky handyman makes a fun straight man to the zaniness, and Paul Kerr’s appearance as a questionable suitor with a laugh like fingernails down a chalkboard is, thankfully, doled out in small doses. Finally, Janet Essenpreis is suitably sugar-coated nastiness as Sugar Lee’s vengeful rival.
On the technical side, I have to say the scenic design by Ron Riall may be my least favorite set I’ve ever seen at Derby Dinner. The furniture and set pieces are all fine, but the large stained glass church window on the back of the set, with the middle third of it torn away so that anyone in the audience sitting behind it can see the action, is just distractingly unattractive. I think it would have been better to dispense with the window than to present it in such a hideous state. Alexa Hollway’s lighting and David Nelson’s sound designs are typically top-notch for the playhouse.
The show’s six scenes move along at a pretty brisk pace, although the story mostly wraps up in the fifth scene, making scene 6 feel tacked on and unnecessary. But if you like these sorts of grass roots comedies, this will be right up your alley. And judging from the standing O they received on the Friday performance I attended, I think this is just what the DDP’s regulars ordered.
Starring Brian Bowman, Michelle Bradley, Janet Essenpreis, Paul Kerr, Debbie King-Raque, Elizabeth Loos, Rita Thomas, and Tina Jo Wallace.
The Hallelujah Girls
August 17 – October 2, 2016
Derby Dinner Playhouse
525 Marriott Drive
Clarksville, IN 47129
Craig Nolan Highley has been active in local theatre as an actor, director and producer for more than 12 years. He has worked with Bunbury Theater, Clarksville Little Theatre, Finnigan Productions, Louisville Repertory Company, Savage Rose Classical Theatre Co., and WhoDunnit Murder Mystery Theatre among others. He has been a member of the Wayward Actors Company since 2006, and currently serves as their Board President. Craig’s reviews have also appeared in TheatreLouisville and Louisville Mojo.