By Jill Vejnoska
Errmm … How did this one slip by me for so long?
I am a professional journalist, after all, trained in the fine art of sniffing out news and trends almost before they happen. And I’m such a TV junkie, they’re gonna have to pry the remote from my cold dead hands and bury me in a flat-screen coffin.
And yet there I was on Friday night at OnStage Atlanta in Decatur seeing “Designing Women LIVE” for the very first time.
“Designing Women LIVE 9,” to be precise. Although, in my defense, it’s “only” been running for six years. And tickets are nearly impossible to score.
Anyone with enough money and hideous-colored pairs of bermuda shorts could get into Augusta National to watch The Masters this week. But nine of 10 scheduled “DWL” performances sold out almost instantly; with a week to go before the tenth, next Sunday afternoon, only six tickets remained available.
Maybe that says something about “Designing Women’s” enduring appeal, especially here. The 1986-1993 CBS sitcom was set in an Atlanta so authentic, it knowingly referenced the Big Chicken and gridlock on I-285. Meanwhile, there’s just something about a man as a dame. As always, “DWL’s” four main characters, the ladies of Sugarbakers & Associates design firm, are all played by men.
“People ask us, why don’t you schedule more shows,” Topher Payne, aka “Julia Sugarbaker,” confided during a rehearsal, where he and his longtime co-stars ran lines and practiced walking on sky-high heels. “But we want to keep demand high.”
Indeed, Friday night felt like being let into some exclusive, slightly secret club. Everyone seemed to have been there before for “Designing Women LIVE’s 1-8,” or to have come with someone who had. A bar in the lobby did a brisk business, notably the guy in front of me in line (hey, when in Rome …) who bought a full bottle of wine and carried it into the theater.
The show started a little past 8 p.m. with an almost word-for-word, 1980s-big-shoulderpads-and-bigger-hairdos reenactment of a Season 1 episode in which Julia’s teen son comes home from college with — surprise! — his fortysomething cougar girlfriend. Like the opening cork pop of bottle service, the audience erupted into applause as soon as the lights came up to reveal the familiar Sugarbakers interior, with its overstuffed couch and Charlene’s (tall, sweetly trusting Stuart Schleuse) desk, the only one in a business where very little work ever seemed to get done.
Some lines got such big laughs the actors had to pause briefly — five words: “Miss Valdosta Feed and Grain” — and you suddenly remembered how funny and unapologetically female-empowering that sitcom was. And you almost forgot that it was men playing women up there. Like me, you may even have found yourself thinking they were as good as or better at it in some ways than the TV show’s stars were.
“We’re all experienced theater people and we don’t try to play it over-the-top or be drag queens,” said DeWayne Morgan, artistic director for Process Theatre, a resident company at OnStage. He plays Suzanne Sugarbaker in “DWL,” memorably capturing the ex-beauty queen in all her eyerolling, unabashedly self-absorbed glory. “We are acting the part.”
(For what it’s worth, Johnny Drago says his Mary Jo Shively is more an homage to actress Annie Potts as Mary Jo Shively. Whatever. The character’s giant, wildly untamed head of hair and laugh both seemed to grow increasingly hilarious as the show went on.)
In 2008, Payne and Morgan were part of a group that performed “Golden Girls Live!” as an AID Atlanta fundraiser. Sometime after, a letter arrived from the show’s syndicator essentially saying, “Don’t ever do that again.” Enter, some six years ago, “DWL,” at first a twice annual fundraiser for OnStage and Process. Then they heard from an assistant to that sitcom’s creator, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason. Gulp. But it turned out she loved the idea and even sent along TV Julia’s signature large spectacles, which Payne sports in “DWL 9.”
Meanwhile, the legend (quietly) grows. The second half of Friday’s show was “Miss Trial and Foreign Affairs” a mashup of two of the sitcom’s most popular episodes. In one, Julia gets stuck on jury duty and in the other, Suzanne convinces Sugarbakers’ longsuffering deliveryman Anthony (Parris Sarter) to pretend to be her El Salvadoran maid and meet with the INS.
Sarter, incidentally, is a woman. Or, in this case, a woman playing a man playing a woman.
You were expecting anything less from “DWL?”
“It’s kind of an inside-Atlanta, inside-baseball thing,” said Charles Ogilvie, back in the audience again after several years away, this time accompanied by a wideyed newcomer. “This is what makes Atlanta cool.”
Glad to do my part.