The Hallelujah Girls
Cape Fear Playhouse • 613 Castle St.
6/9-12 and 16-19, 8 p.m.,
or Sun., 3 p.m. • $15-$18 ($10 Thurs.)
“The Hallelujah Girls” follows a group of middle-aged women and a youngster through the death of their friend, Vonda Joyce. According to the ladies, Joyce always put off living with one promise: “After I lose 20 pounds, I am going to…” Following a time span of one year, the audience gets to see the changes affecting the friends’ lives, as their lead cheerleader, Sugar Lee, takes Joyce’s death to heart and decides to not put off following her dream any longer. She sinks her life savings into a dilapidating church and turns it into Eden Falls, Georgia’s house of puddy and wax, also known as Spa-Dee-Dah.
Filled with zippy quips, pun-filled songs, metaphors and similes out the wazoo, the adventures of “The Hallelujah Girls” are, if anything, down-right silly—something many will appreciate when considering the real world’s otherwise serious state. Still, the dialogue is expectant, chock full of Southern colloquialisms (“makes me as mad as a bee stinging a mule’s ass”), and the characters are exaggerated, possessing typical drawls of enunciation and overdramatization. Though it often reaches soap opera status, people from the South will recognize the characters tenfold.
Front and center is Charlotte Hackman as Mavis. She’s wise-cracking and tells it like it is. Seemingly, she would rather stay out partying in her September years than be with her predictable, blasé spouse (her hangover scene is a standout). It begs many laughs, one husband joke after another—that is when talks of gravity-stricken body parts aren’t at the forefront of discussion. Hackman brings a much-praised entitlement to her performance, as if making it clear she has reached an age where Mavis is owed a life of excitement. She has the right amount of that “rock ‘em, sock ‘em” mentality many strive to achieve throughout their lives.
Monnie Whiston as Carlene certainly commands the stage with the most natural Southern charm. She plays a three-time widow and becomes the bunt of many jokes throughout the show. Her comedic grace is joyful. Somewhat new to Wilmington’s acting scene, folks should look forward to seeing more from her.
Jane McNeill Balter’s Sugar Lee is at ease throughout her performance, bringing to light not only a very young-looking middle-aged woman (we can all wish, right?) but someone who clearly thrives in the caretaker role. She constantly eggs her cohorts into believing in themselves—befitting to her name nonetheless. It’s clear her intent is awfully sweet, but sometimes too much saccharine causes a toothache. The cynic in me wanted her to find her inner Mavis each time her nemesis Bunny (Suzanne Nystrom) entered a scene.
Nystrom has been in quite a few shows locally, presenting many roles due with praise. But her transformation as the villian needs more pungency and venom; otherwise, she gets lost as someone completely unaware of her bold company.
Holli Sapperstein as Nita gives naiveté its own meaning. While she plays the character with appropriate blissful bewilderment , her escape into romance novels gets tired after the second go-round. Though it could have been as trying to watch Emily Graham’s Crystal sing about every calendar holiday to the tune of Christmas carols, it wasn’t—ever. Graham brings cooky to life with flamboyant flair. Her character—the youngest of them all, which at first seemed an odd fit—was perfect in every heightened eye roll and lanky, boisterous entrance.
The two men in the show don’t get overshadowed by their estrogen-filled cast. Carter McKaughan’s Porter was as animated as a cartoon, gripping laugh and all. Ron Hasson’s Bobby Dwayne braved the terrain with magnified ego, often buoyed with hard-to-believe regret.
In the end, “The Hallelujah Girls” cannot be watched without extreme comparisons to all-female, Southern sitcoms, like “Designing Women” and “The Golden Girls.” However, the most obvious parallel is to the 1989 movie “Steel Magnolias”: Mavis would be akin to Ouiser; Sugar Lee would be M’Lynn; Carlene would be Clairee and Truvy combined; and Nita and Crystal would fight for Annelle. In fact, the parallels throughout the show are obvious: the setting in a salon, the women’s repartee, a death-inspiring change. Yet, in my opinion, the writers of “The Hallelujah Girls,” Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten, lack the finesse that breathe subtle depth to its cast. Sure, the laughs are aplenty and very obvious, but by the end, lack of nuance led to lack of compassion. And the small-town gossip divulged from it all proved stereotypical and cliché.
Still, Big Dawg pulled it off, not only with a cast who clearly had a ball acting the show, but with an applaudable set design, thanks to Doug Dodson. With the help of local salons, Salon Looks and Paradigm, the show was dressed with the right amount of hair, nails and facial essentials to transform the church, faux stained-glass window and all, into Spa-Dee-Dah. The only downfall from it were the few, long scene changes endured from the sheer amount of movement needed on stage. However, the blues and R&B music playing overhead kept the audience entertained—and in the end, they all laughed their way out the door.