Ah, now we know what was missing from all of Uptown Players' previous men-in-drag comedies by Las Vegas playwright Jamie Morris: Jamie Morris wasn't in them. He's in his latest — Re-Designing Women, now in its world premiere at the Rose Room on Cedar Springs — and he's terrific.
In a killer cast directed by Andi Allen, Morris takes the lead as the steel magnolia interior designer and liberal cause crusader Julia Sugarbaker, who was played on TV by the late, great Dixie Carter. Morris bases his outrageously broad comedies on broads beloved as gay icons in movies and on television. Before Re-Designing Women, which imagines a reality TV reunion of all the gals on the 1980s CBS sitcom, there was Facts of Life: The Lost Episode, Mommie Queerest and Silence of the Clams, each a filthy, funny, no-females homage to its source material.
Re-Designing Women is the best so far, with a script as tight as Delta Burke's Spanx and a cast of actors who seem to have absorbed the essence of what made Designing Women a hit. Morris not only gets Dixie/Julia's husky Southern drawl, he also captures her exaggerated gestures and hip-swinging stride. When his Julia Sugarbaker bellows "Su-ZAY-yun!" at the Burke character, played with exquisitely self-aware drag glam by Ashton McKay Shawver, it's as if Morris is channeling Ms. Carter, from his chic high heels right up through his '80s shoulder pads and clear through each brunette curl on his shoulder-length bob. (Wigs and makeup by Coy Covington achieve some nice illusions on these guys, with a few special silly touches to remind you who's who among the Women. Costumes by Suzi Cranford reflect the horrors of 1980s women's fashion and stay true to the sitcom characters' style.)
Sure, it helps if you know and worship Designing Women the way Morris does. But even if you don't, Re-Designing Women delivers a double comedy whammy with its satirical takedown of Bravo TV, that cable channel's cross-eyed bear, Andy Cohen, and Cohen's endless gushing on his talk show, Watch What Happens Live. In Morris' play, the sitcom's Sugarbaker sisters and their co-stars are brought back together for a reality series called Sugar Walls. They sit down with Andy (Kevin Moore) to clear the air over their differences. (You know, the way those Housewives of Atlanta/New York/Orange County/New Jersey do at the end of every season.)
A table is flipped, of course, and somebody yells "Prostitution whore!" Nene Leakes, the golden-coiffed Amazon from RHOA, makes a cameo appearance (embodied by the deliciously snappy Darius Anthony Robinson) to warn everyone to "close your legs to married men."
Morris is smart to incorporate current TV catchphrases into Re-Designing Women. The sitcom went off the air 20 years ago and its reruns, still bouncing around the nether reaches of cable, haven't aged as well as The Golden Girls. Meanwhile, Bravo is still wall to wall with Real Housewives who are popular with older and younger demos (gay and straight). In Morris' concept, moving the sitcom characters into the present allows Julia Sugarbaker and the others to take pithy swipes at Snooki, iPads, Sarah Palin, Rachel Zoe and other annoyances that weren't cluttering the culture in the 1980s.
The whole ensemble tears it up in this two-act romp, which runs about 100 minutes (with intermission and a full bar at the back). Robinson also plays Anthony, the ex-con assistant to the Sugarbakers' design firm and the voice of reason in many episodes. Michael B. Moore is daffy Charlene (the Jean Smart character), whose towering height is made great sport of, as well as the character's airhead personality. Chad Peterson wears cherry-red ringlets as Mary Jo (the Annie Potts character), stomping in anger and stirring up trouble with the other ladies. Mikey Abrams plays the late-in-the-TV-series addition Bernice, wearing a Christmas tree skirt and using a tremulous voice just like the actress Alice Ghostley back in the day.
Set designer Dennis Canright sets up the furniture the way they had it in the Sugarbakers' mansion/office. Charlene's desk is stage left. Mary Jo's stage right. And in the middle sits a sofa where Suzanne roosts in her special spot for endless makeup touch-ups and hair primping. Canright should have been allowed to spend an extra dollar or two on the decor, which is so shabby it would make the TV Sugarbaker girls barf up their peach cobblers. But it hardly matters with a wacky show like this. It's all a howl and the cut-rate accoutrements are part of the joke.
But here's a tip that will help you enjoy this show just a smidge more. Find episode two of the first season of Designing Women, the one from 1986 titled "The Beauty Contest," written by series creator Linda Bloodworth-Thomason. Morris uses a speech from that episode at the end of his play, a speech that is to devotees of Designing Women what "Vitameatavegamin" is to fans of I Love Lucy. At the sold-out performance reviewed, the audience, mostly gay men, mostly of the age to have seen and loved Designing Women when it first aired on CBS, joined in with Morris' Julia Sugarbaker as she launched into the rant known as "the night the lights went out in Georgia" speech. They knew it word for word, saying it in the same cadence that Dixie Carter said it and that Morris now performs it.
It's a giddy, insanely fun moment of live theater. Don't be tardy for this party.