According to Asheville Community Theatre managing director Susan Harper, The Hallelujah Girls is the fifth play produced in Asheville by comedy team Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten. It’s also the first of those five that is not a world premiere. Team Jones-Hope-Wooten collectively relocated to Asheville half a decade ago and since that time, their stage work has been produced some 700 times worldwide. Most of those shows were test driven on the Asheville audience.
Hallelujah was a welcome escape from a cold and rainy Sunday. The matinee show was mostly full and the audience seemed ready to be entertained. Hallelujah delivered, from the opening notes of the women-powered country soundtrack (Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like A Woman!”) to the first zippy one liners: “[She was] sneaking bites of the honey bun she always snuck in under the bill of her Atlanta Braves cap” and “I’d still have my glittery macaroni praying hands if the weevils hadn’t got to ‘em.”
Anyone who’s seen any of the Jones/Hope/Wooten canon (Dearly Departed, Christmas Belles and Southern Hospitality) know what to expect: Quirky Southern characters, over-the-top antics, marital spats, big drama, bigger hair and happy endings. The trio’s first three ACT-produced plays (mentioned above) were all hits in that campy sitcom way; the trio’s last effort, ‘Til Beth Do Us Part didn’t measure up to its predecessors (worth noting, according to the Jones/Hope/Wooten Web site, Beth was only produced in Asheville). Happily, Hallelujah is back on track with fast-pace slapstick, a saucy woman-centric cast and a great story line.
Here’s the plot: Following the death of a friend, blond bombshell of a certain age Sugar Lee is inspired to follow her dreams and so she buys an old church and opens Spa-Dee-Dah day spa. Her friends Mavis (who is having trouble with her husband), Nita (beleaguered by her jailbird son) and Carlene (rumored to have accidentally killed off her suitors) all lend a hand. But trouble finds the happy quartet when Sugar Lee’s high school sweetheart Bobby Dwayne returns as a handyman, and then life-long enemy Bunny tries to ruin Sugar Lee’s business so that Bunny can buy the church and open a museum. Hijinks ensue.
High point: Actor Rhonda Parker, who plays offbeat character Crysta,l goes a long way toward stealing the show. Crystal has a costume and a theme song for every holiday (including Chinese New Year). Perfect, since each scene of Hallelujah is set on a different holiday, the entire show covering the course of a year. Cookie baking, off-key singing, popping in at just the right moment to deliver just the right line, Crystal is reminiscent of another Jones-Hope-Wooten character: Village idiot savant Reynard from Christmas Belles.
Low point: At times the lines are delivered too quickly. The rapid-fire dialog keeps the action moving (the problem with Beth was that the story didn’t move quickly enough so it’s hard to complain too much about the increased pace) but there are some deliciously wicked lines that aren’t allowed enough time to feel their full effect.
Speaking of lines, Hallelujah includes some great ones. “Wearing gym socks hardly counts as ‘fully clothed’” and “You know what they say: The first 40 years of parenthood are the hardest” are among the zingers. Joan Atwood’s Bunny is a treasure trove of backhanded complements; Atwood perfects these with snarky body language and a wardrobe of fur-collared coats a la Cruella DeVille. Also excellent: The Spa-Dee-Dah set and the attention to detail, from seasonal sweaters to Spa-Dee-Dah smocks.
But what really drives Hallelujah is the witty banter. Sure, there are few surprises but sometimes seeing the punch line coming — when it packs a wallop — is plenty of fun. The audience is in on the joke and, even if Hallelujah doesn’t leave its audience with a life-changing revelation, it — like a good party host — makes sure that a good time is had by all.
The Hallelujah Girls runs through Sunday, Dec. 6 at ACT. Shows are at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets are $12, $19 and $22. Info: 254-1320.
—Alli Marshall, A&E reporter