While seeing the stage adaptation of the famous sitcom "Designing Women" by Horizon Theatre, the adage "comparison is the thief of joy" came to mind.
It took the whole of the first act before I was able to stop remembering the unforgettable roles that Dixie Carter, Delta Burke, Annie Potts, and Jean Smart played on the television show and begin to savour the charms - and humour - of this admirable cast. A first act that lags and isn't particularly humorous and a second act that is a laugh-riot are the burdens they must bear. I would be writing a fantastic review if the first act had been cut by 30 minutes to make it a 90-minute extravaganza without a break, but getting this show up in the air and flying almost causes it to crash and burn.
Here's a quick recap in case you missed the show during its original run from 1986 to 1993 or any of the innumerable replays since: The Atlanta-based interior design firm Sugarbaker & Associates is the scene of "Designing Women." The company is run by Julia Sugarbaker, known for her witty remarks and epic rants, as well as by her sister Suzanne, a spoiled, racist beauty queen who frequently marries men, Mary Jo Shively, a designer who is overly self-conscious and unlucky in love, Charlene Frazier, an Arkansas yokel and receptionist, and Anthony Bouvier, a Black ex-convict who is initially hired as a delivery driver but later joins the company as a
The sitcom, which was created by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, was a hit and timely for the bulk of its run, busting preconceptions and myths about Southern women, culture, and society in the process. It was racially conscious, feminist, political, LGBTQ-friendly, and frequently deeply touching. The programme confronted issues like misogyny, fat shaming, and AIDS head-on. Television was revolutionised by it.
This play was written in 2020, a turbulent year marked by the COVID-19 epidemic, racial injustice demonstrations, and a divisive presidential election. "Designing Women: 2020 - The Big Split" was created as a result of her initial curiosity about what the women of Sugarbaker & Associates would think of the current situation. The title alone is too long.
The actors, who mysteriously manage to channel both the characters AND the actors that portrayed them in the show, deserve nothing but praise. The always amazing Joanna Daniels has perfected the deadpan tone we're all familiar with in Mary Jo, along with a few profanities we never got to hear on network TV. Katherine Lanasa has that elegant, whip-smart, no-nonsense air embodying Julia.
It also appears like Megan Mullally's Karen Walker from "Will & Grace" served as inspiration for Beth Beyer's flouncy, petulant Suzanne, which strangely fits. As a practising attorney, Anthony has transferred his ownership of the firm to his sister Cleo (Tiffany Porter), a visible queer woman who can hold her own in this household of white women.
Unfortunately, Charlene (Lane Carlock) spends the majority of the play travelling with her husband, but her fervent sister Haley (Eve Krueger) is filling in at the Sugarbaker front desk.
As I said before, the first act of "Designing Women" falls flat because it spends too much time setting the stage and catching the audience up. The gags about Trump and the MAGA crowd are tired and predictable, Suzanne's endless divorce woes feel recycled (and Luis R. Hernandez's skill is wasted as her upcoming ex-husband wanting to reclaim her breast implants), and Haley's submission to her likely gay husband is underdeveloped. That leaves Cleo to just shake her head in disgust and roll her eyes at Haley's homophobia-instigated church, and Mary Jo to whine about going to therapy.
But when act two begins after the interval, Bloodworth-Thomason shows us how hilarious "Designing Women" was and still is. When it is revealed that Suzanne once slept with Trump, the Sugarbakers are placed under quarantine, and Julia and Suzanne are no longer friendly.
Julia from Lanasa had a brilliant and funny window hookup with her new boyfriend, the flirtatious Robin Bloodworth, during their quarantine. Unknowingly consuming drugged punch, Kruger's Haley lets her drunken feminist side go. The Mary Jo story by Daniels about running across her ex-wife husband's at his cemetery is hilarious. The second episode's standout is Porter's Cleo, whose breakdown of Suzanne's prejudice and the "Gone With the Wind" happy slave cliché is one of those dramatic moments Bloodworth-Thomason used to brilliantly weave into the series. Porter creates a visceral deep, enraged exhaustion.
Because of the difficult situation, Julia and Suzanne decide to permanently close Sugarbaker & Associates. That is, until the fragmented Sugarbaker family is reminded by Carlock's Charlene, who arrives just in time for a monologue, of why they have been so close for so long.
Hats off to set designers Moriah Curley and Isabel Curley-Clay for achieving the perfect balance between tribute and modernity in their designs, as well as director Heidi McKerley.
Clay deserves a chef's kiss for their considerate renovation of the familiar Sugarbakers office. Being in the front row, as I was, is like being in the office, which was fun.
As a longstanding "Designing Women" fan, I would implore Bloodworth-Thomason to edit and polish the first half in order to match the humour of the second. These characters are well-known, even if you didn't watch the show when it first aired in the 1980s. This would be a victory if you let them loose and gave them better one-liners. Right now, it's as slow as Southern molasses to get to the good stuff.
Up to November 6, "Designing Women" is showing. Visit this page for tickets and additional details.
Theatre Review: Horizon's staging of "Designing Women" takes a while to get the chuckles originally appeared on Reporter Newspapers & Atlanta Intown.