ATLANTIC BEACH EXPERIMENTAL THEATRE REVIEW
A DUAL CRITICS REVIEW by DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM
The Atlantic Beach Experimental Theatre (ABET) has opened a terrific Southern comedy at 716 Ocean Boulevard in Atlantic Beach Florida. “The Hallelujah Girls” opened on May 5 and will run through May 21, 2017. Call 249-7177 or visit abettheatre.com for additional information and reservations.
“The Hallelujah Girls,” written by the team of Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jaime Wooten, is the funniest play we have seen so far this year. The playwrights (sometimes known collectively as Jones Hope Wooten) have written numerous successful comedies; several have made their way to our local stages, with “Always a Bridesmaid,“ “Christmas Belles,” and “The Dixie Swim Club” among them. If you liked “Golden Girls” and “Designing Women” on television, then you are going to love this show.
Director Celia Frank could not have cast this show any better. How experienced are the actors? If we listed all the shows that they have been in locally, we would completely fill up this review and wouldn’t have room for anything else.
The play is set in Eden Falls, Georgia, in a dilapidated structure built as a church; the church has been decommissioned and the building has not been used for some time. The property has been purchased by Sugar Lee Thompkins, portrayed by the dynamic Jennifer Latka, to fulfill her lifetime dream of owning a business, a day spa, where she and her friends can spend quality time together. “Spa Dee Dah!” will be a comfortable and welcoming space. Some renovation will be required of course, but that shouldn’t be a problem . . .
Sugar Lee’s cohorts are characters with interesting backgrounds. Carlene (Olivia Gowan), known as “The Black Widow of Eden Falls,” has had three husbands who have died. She is thrilled when Porter Padgett, the town’s mailman unexpectedly proposes. He is portrayed by Allen Morton, who is excellent as the affable but unsophisticated bachelor who is looking forward to changes in his life.
Nita (Toni Lang Phillips) works two jobs to support her twenty-year old son who is just one step ahead of his probation officer. She is at her funniest when she arrives dressed as a Viking for her job at Aunt Heidi’s Sausage on a Stick at the local mall.
Mavis (Tracy Gallagher) is in a long-time loveless marriage, and is trying to figure out how she can fake her death and escape.
The only thing we learn about Crystal (Rebecca Williams) is that she loves to celebrate the holidays, ranging from Independence Day to Chinese New Year. She dons colorful costumes, and sings familiar songs; she fancies herself a songwriter, and has rewritten the lyrics.
The last woman we meet is Bunny (Karen Garrett). She is an unlikeable and scheming wealthy aristocrat who wants to force Sugar Lee to accept her offer to purchase the spa so she can replace it with a museum in her name. Bunny does get her due at the end of the play and we will let you discover the details for yourself.
The final character is Bobby (Brian Johnson), a handsome contractor who has agreed to work on installing new plumbing. We learn that he and Sugar Lee had planned to marry after they graduated from high school. The story of their break-up is an interesting one, which we will not reveal here.
The opening night audience and the dual critics laughed long and hard throughout the show, which is filled with one-line wisecracks offset at times with down-home wisdom.
The excellent set that was transformed from abandoned church to fashionable spa was created by Allen Morton, who has shared his exceptional talents as an actor and set designer/decorator with almost every theatre in this area.
Another name we have seen around town is that of Amy Tillotson as costume stylist and consultant. She gets a bravo! for Crystal’s creative holiday costumes.
The two-act play takes place during a one-year time period, and has three scenes in each act near the holidays. “Girls” is a fast-paced show, and even the backstage people briefly got into the act when they changed the opening set. A well-deserved hand goes to Stage Manager Catherine Espinosa and Backstage Crew member Zoe McMillan.
Additional production crew members included Bryan Frank (Light/Sound Design), Betsy Totten Darnell (Light/Sound Operator), Rebecca Williams (Scenic Artist), Aaron DeCicco (Piano Accompaniment), and Gordon Frank (Light/Sound Tech).
Take a trip and experience the friendship of six women (along with a friendly government employee and a muscled contractor) as they love, laugh, and shine in their roles.
Of note: ABET is staging a special benefit production of “Love, Loss, and What I Wore” during June 2 – 4, 2017.