The Hallelujah Girls at 30 by Ninety Theatre through August 2
It may not be Shakespeare, but after four months without any live theater, The Hallelujah Girls, playing at Mandeville’s 30 by Ninety Theatre (https://30byninety.com) through August 2, seems like the greatest show ever done. Well, not quite. But almost.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down live theater in March, there’ve been various productions online. Some have used Zoom; some have been live-streamed; some have employed other broadcasting methods. Some have been good; some have been great; some have been neither.
Nothing, however, can equal the thrill of seeing three-dimensional people in real time sharing the same space as their fellow actors and hearing the words that tell a story coming from their mouths and not a computer or cell phone.
For bringing back such live theater, a debt of gratitude is owed to the folks at 30 by Ninety. Wearing masks and socially distancing, they have done all they can to provide a safe environment for cast, crew, and audience members. This includes temperature checks upon entering the theater, supplying hand sanitizer, and ongoing sanitization & disinfecting of the building.
In addition, they are utilizing only 50% of their seating capacity and employing socially spaced seating which gives the auditorium an odd appearance as chairs are spread out individually. Welcome to the new normal, I guess.
All that, however, did not prevent 30 by Ninety’s loyal patrons from coming out and filling the house. It gives one hope that theater as a communal experience will eventually be back as it has existed for thousands of years.
As for The Hallelujah Girls, it’s one of those “laugh-out-loud comedies” by Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope & Jamie Wooten, who specialize in “creating vivid strong roles for women.” (Hey, I’m just quoting their website.) Chekhov it ain’t, but that’s not what it aspires to be, and anything that can entertain & take our minds off these crazy times deserves to be welcomed with unabashed enthusiasm.
In it, Sugar Lee Thompkins converts an abandoned church into a day spa; her quartet of gal pals either work or happily spend their time and money there. Each has a character-defining challenge, mostly of the romantic variety, that they are “determined, motivated and self-reliant” enough to overcome.
Drama comes in the form of Sugar Lee’s old high school rival who’d like nothing more than to snatch that church away from Sugar Lee and turn it into a museum that she can run in her own wickedly witchy way.
Sure it’s sitcomy a la Petticoat Junction or Designing Women or Golden Girls (which Wooten once wrote for). Yup, the dialogue is of the “madder than a mule with a bee up his butt” variety. And lotsa silly stuff occurs along the way to the happy ending.
But there is some genuinely funny stuff, too, and a heartwarming finale that provides some quite touching moments. And even if the characters verge on caricature, in its non-condescending portrayal of hard-working, good-humored women dealing with selfish adult children, inattentive husbands and challenging debts, there’s something even admirable about Girls.
Director Jason J. Leader keeps the action moving and brings out the laughs in the script, mining it for many moments of funny physical comedy as well.
Laurie Bonura is utterly natural as Sugar Lee, both sweet and tough, and her warm presence makes you root for Sugar Lee to triumph, something essential for the show’s success.
As Bobby Dwayne, Sugar Lee’s high school beau with whom she had a life-altering falling out and who’s now the contractor for the church/spa conversion (sorry, but Girls features lotsa plot points), Nino Bonura makes an adorable studmuffin. Married to Laurie in real life, their unforced chemistry adds an extra spark to the production.
Beth Harris brings a great comic sense to Mavis, one of Laurie’s pals, and wisely underplays her frustration with her husband’s lack of interest in the bedroom. Her transformation into a wild woman is a hoot.
Dawn Mastacuso as Carlene, who’s buried three husbands of natural causes but gets persuaded to try for #4, and Cashel Rodriguez as Nita, who has to deal with her problematic son and his probation officer, employee and patron of the spa, respectively, both contribute solid support, wisely emphasizing the comedy in, rather than the tragedy of, their characters’ lives.
As the fourth member of Laurie’s krewe, Amy Riddell exemplifies ditziness as Crystal who loves to entertain and costume for each major holiday, which she does in a string of imaginative and wacky themed outfits.
Evette Randolph is properly bitchy as the revenge-seeking Bunny while René Poché makes an amusing beau for Carlene.
The Hallelujah Girls may not be for everyone. Not the play, which is hard to dislike unless you’re only in the mood for King Lear. Rather, I mean 30 by Ninety’s set-up which, while I was completely comfortable with it, my companion felt compelled to leave the auditorium after the first scene as many audience members removed their masks after the play started (they did put them back on during the intermission).
If, however, that isn’t a problem for you and you have a hankering for some glorious live entertainment, do plan a drive to Mandeville before August 2.
If you can’t make it to Girls, though, next up (Aug. 29-Sept. 13) will be the classic courtroom jury drama 12 Angry Men. I suspect the verdict will be “Guilty of a good time.”
The Seth Concert Series through August 2
As we continue to quarantine and socially distance, Seth Rudetsky, Broadway’s favorite motormouth pixie, has extended his cabaret/concert/interview series, bringing more theatrical stars into our bedrooms and living rooms.
On July 12, Audra McDonald began her show singing I Am What I Am with her glorious, operatic voice.
When she finished the song, though tumultuous “clapping” appeared on the chat that scrolled by, McDonald, performing in her own apartment, was met, naturally, with silence prompting her to say “I miss audiences. I miss being onstage,” adding “We gotta be smart and listen to the scientists and wear our masks, so we can get out of this.”
In perhaps the most personal of any of these shows, live or live-streamed, McDonald spoke candidly about the challenges and racism she’s encountered and dealt with over the years, from lightening her skin for a Showboat audition in 1992 to Disney asking for Daddy Warbucks’ proposal scene in television’s 1999 Annie to be reshot because she is Black.
She also recalled, in the early part of her career, doing shows for prisoners with AIDS. “They were the best audience,” she said, adding that the stage in the jail was “as real a stage as Carnegie Hall or a Broadway one.”
Just as lovely and down-to-earth virtually as she was at NOCCA, McDonald reprised a few of the songs she sang there last December with some, like Ragtime‘s Sarah Brown Eyes taking on added resonance since George Floyd’s killing. Rudetsky’s observation afterwards that this was “a very cathartic concert” was apt.
McDonald concluded her 90-minute concert with Summertime followed by Climb Ev’ry Mountain, reversing their order from her NOCCA performance. Her soprano soaring, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s inspirational anthem has never seemed so appropriate and necessary.
The following week Norm Lewis headlined. I had never seen him before and it was a treat to be introduced to him this way.
With his wonderfully virile baritone, he delivered a beautiful version of The Impossible Dream, and elicited goosebumps with Les Miz’ Stars and Bring Him Home.
The first African-American Phantom on Broadway, Lewis’ rendition of The Music of the Night was sonorous and velvety while he made I got plenty o’ nuttin’ from Porgy and Bess, in which he starred with McDonald on Broadway, slightly gospelly, a fantastic approach.
Throughout, Lewis came off as extremely modest and an absolute mensch. I couldn’t help wondering why this engaging man with a magnificent voice hasn’t had the chance to create any roles that would go on to become classics (King Triton in the stage version of The Little Mermaid doesn’t count). Racism, for sure, but also the inescapable fact that so few shows have become iconic in the last 25-30 years.
Might I have wanted a few more really wild, dishy stories from Lewis? Ok, yeah.
But from his jazzy Wouldn’t It Be Loverly from My Fair Lady to his finale, a loverly jazz/pop/gospel arrangement of Hello, Dolly!’s Before the Parade Passes By, the time spent with Lewis truly flew by.
Throughout this concert series, which also included Melissa Errico on July 5, the absence of an audience has taken a little getting used to for the performers who are accustomed to deserved applause at the conclusion of songs; instead, they’ve each wryly noted that this is almost like an audition where there’s no feedback. With most theaters and cabarets closed for the foreseeable future, is this going to become the new normal?
If so, going forward, Rudetsky and his tech people will, hopefully, be able to make a marvelous thing even better; while the sound quality has always been top-notch, the video has been either a bit blurry (McDonald and Errico) or has frozen occasionally (Lewis).
I suspect this should be easily surmountable in which case Cheyenne Jackson’s concert on August 2 is bound to be perfectly fabulous. Cute and openly gay, I’ve greatly admired Jackson’s performances on Broadway in Xanadu and, especially, Finian’s Rainbow. Can’t wait to have him in my bedroom.
To purchase tickets to Cheyenne Jackson’s show or Norm Lewis’s (which will be available thru August 5) go to thesethconcertseries.com