It is definitely the season of Christmas shows. And there are plenty of live theatre opportunities to celebrate the holidays. Not to be left out, Big Dawg has gotten into the season with another Jones-Hope-Wooten comedy, “Christmas Belles.” This is the bookend piece to “Dearly Beloved,” the show they opened their season with. The trio responsible for this world—Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten—unabashedly layer on the Southern stereotypes that all the relocated Yankees love down here. Underneath the slapstick and verbal humor lurks some pretty heavy thoughts about what family is and why it is important.
In January we met the Futrelle sisters and their cohort of accomplices in Frayo, Texas. They are back and trying to produce the greatest Christmas pageant ever staged. The oldest Futrelle sister, Frankie (Melissa Stanley), and her husband, Dub Duberly (Steve Rassin), are expecting their second set of twins; the first set of girls are grown up. Dub is working overtime as Santa to make some extra cash for the forthcoming expenses of twins (something he is all too familiar with). The sight gags of Stanley and Rassin both in fat suits—her nine months pregnant with twins and he as Santa—never gets old. Dub’s hysterical ranting shrieks of pain from his kidney stone (the compliment to Charles Auten’s screaming incoherent run-bys in “Dearly Beloved”) manage to upstage every scene and always burst with humor.
While the Dubberly duo manage their joint medical crises, younger sister Twink Futrelle (Belinda Keller) is on work-release from jail for the holidays. She apparently, accidentally, burned down half the town while exacting revenge on her ex-boyfriend, Wiley Hicks. Keller has big shoes to fill, taking over from Terrie Batson who nailed the role of Twink in January. Rounding out the Futrelle sister phenomenon is Jenny McKinnon Wright as the hapless, much married, quite tacky, but big-hearted, Honey Rae. She is trying to direct the Christmas pageant, and things are falling apart left and right. She plays frantic well. She also plays bitchy and rude really well—because Honey Rae surely has no time for that new arrival, Rhonda Lynn Lampley (Irene Slater). Poor Rhonda Lynn is just trying to be helpful and find her place in the world. But if looks could kill, the daggers Mckinnon Wright shoots at Rhonda Lynn would have her convicted a few times over by the end of act one. There’s also the town bitch, Patsy Price (Suzanne Nystrom) and Geneva (Deb Bowen), the florist recently deposed as Christmas pageant director. Bowen’s Geneva is not going gently into any good night, thank you very much, and Honey Rae is not backing down. Cat fight, anyone?
In the midst of the madness, the new preacher (Hal Cosec) is trying to ask Gina Jo Dubberly (Erika Edwards) to marry him—if she will just stand still long enough. Cosec is so adorable as the bumbling, shy and relatively inexperienced new minister. But Edwards as the shy and painfully beautiful Gina Jo fleeing from the man she loves is pretty funny. (Though the idea that any woman would run away from Cosec is pretty hard to believe.) When he finally does get her to stand still, they really do make all the gooeyness of young love flutter in one’s heart. Throw in a few more big personalities and some comedic mix-ups and there is a recipe for comedy.
Though this is supposed to be a show about the Futrelle sisters, the men upstage the women in the cast. Obviously, Rassin running through screaming takes all the attention, but in actuality the funniest come from his scenes with Cosec, trying to work up the nerve for permission to ask for Gina Jo’s hand in marriage. (Cosec, by the way, is dressed as a reindeer during these exchanges.)
Charles Calhoun II reprises his role as John Curtis, the most well-intentioned police officer on the planet. He is blessed with a few of my favorite lines, including his advice to Cosec about Gina Jo’s “PFR: Primal Fear Response.” But he really steals the second act when he saves the Christmas pageant with his Elvis impersonation.
Jim Bowling as Raynerd Chisum, the town simpleton and frantic stuffed-jalapeño maker, is an audience favorite. There’s no way not to love a character who loves Arbor Day but points out it doesn’t have any good songs. His recreating Linus from Peanuts is the real holiday moment in the show. What can I say? The man is adorable.
I arrived in desperate need of a good laugh at the end of a very long and trying week. Within minutes, I was giggling out loud at the antics of the performers. Costumer Shawn Sproatt clearly had fun dressing this cast—the robe for the angel in the Nativity looks more like something form a strip club than a church and must been seen to be believed. Director Randy Davis loves sight gags and physical comedy, and it comes through quite clearly in his staging.
The holidays are stressful for any family, Jones-Hope-Wooten capture that pressure cooker in a different way than the usual screaming family dinner. But the heart of what one expects from a Christmas show is there: family, love, struggles, unexpected triumphs, and a happy ending. This time the story has a lot of humor, and a cast clearly having fun with the material. To have so many performers reprise their roles in a sequel almost a year later says something about the material, and the experience they have with each other (and their director). Maybe that, more than anything, is the message of the show.
Jones-Hope-Wooten still have nine more shows that haven’t been produced here yet. There are plenty more laughs to come on that front. In other good news, Big Dawg has announced their 2016 Season, which will include Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap” and Tom Stoppard’s parody of the play, “The Real Inspector Hound.” Don’t worry, there are two Neil Simon shows on the docket—just to make sure the comedy is front and center in the season.