Carla Renata, Sarah Colonna, Elaine Hendrix, Kim Matula, Carmen Cusack and Amy Pietz in “Designing Women” / TheatreSquared
As patrons waited for the debut of “Designing Women” and during intermission of the new theatrical version from TheatreSquared, background music set the tone.
We heard music from The Chicks, who were named the “The Dixie Chicks” during the time the band and the television version of “Designing Women” overlapped. And there was the song “Redesigning Women,” a track from female country supergroup The Highwomen. The song is thoroughly feminist, as is the stage show.
“Designing Women” uses many of the characters from the small screen version that ran from September 1986 to May 1993. But for the new theater show, created by the writer of the original television show, Linda Bloodworth Thomason, most of the characters are not “redesigned” but simply shifted to the modern era. Instead of AIDS and Bill Clinton, the women offer their takes on COVID and Donald Trump.
Where: Live at TheatreSquared and also streaming
When: 7:30 p.m. every Tuesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays from Sept. 24 to Oct. 24; the streaming version will debut Oct. 15
Cost: $18-$58; $25-$35 for a streaming pass
Tickets: 479-777-7477 or theatre2.org
We’re placed inside the offices of the Sugarbaker and Associates interior design firm in Atlanta, located in the home of Julia Sugarbaker (played by Carmen Cusack). If this production is a continuation of the original show, we’re not told what the women have been doing in the intervening years. We’re only watching the now.
Now, by the way, is plenty scary. There is considerable calamity, from COVID-19 to a divided political climate that has created fault lines ahead of the 2020 presidential election. This is certainly true in Georgia, which looks evenly split.
The Sugarbaker home/office is a house divided, at one point literally so as a quarantine order hits and Suzanne Sugarbaker, Julia’s younger sister, uses part of the space for her line of beauty products. Handing out free samples of perfume is about as much “work” as we see any of the characters do. Meanwhile, Suzanne’s assistant Haley, who was earlier in the show the assistant to Julia, is tasked with ordering a new Cadillac for Suzanne (Amy Pietz), as she gets a new Cadillac every two years. But there is also talk that the design firm is nearly insolvent considering diminished income due to COVID-19 and backlash to Julia’s progressive politics.
The show is somewhat scattered in this way. That’s because it feels like a sitcom, and at nearly three hours, it feels like six episodes of one. Characters come and go, and there’s a lot happening all at once. There’s the requisite romance, which provide some of the show’s funniest moments – that poor door! And there’s no shortage of other things to talk about. Suzanne, as one example, is getting a divorce from the MAGA-hat-wearing Caulder Tipton III (Matthew Floyd Miller). Charlene (Elaine Hendrix) is on vacation, maybe. Mary Jo (played by Farmington native and “Chelsea Lately” writer Sarah Colonna) attempts to confront a sexual harasser. Cleo (Carla Renata) provides an impassioned refusal to attend a wedding at a plantation. And Haley (often played by Kim Matula, but played by Debra Capps during my viewing of the show) discusses her controlling husband, who might also be gay. Fun!
And, yes, it is often very funny, despite the weight of some of the topics.
Also sprinkled throughout the show are pop culture references such as Cleo’s daughter’s obsession with Cardi B and the Kardashians. Coupled with references to masks and the Biden-Trump election, 20 years from now we’ll have no problem knowing exactly when this show took place. But I also wonder how this show will hold up 20 years from now.
In the present, TheatreSquared has brought in a powerhouse cast featuring Broadway and television veterans to fill the rolls.
Aesthetically, the big open room where the characters hang out was beautifully decorated, as required for a show that is ostensibly about interior designers. It was also very functional, with a kitchen area, bar, study area and stairs that led to the living quarters above and away from the audience’s view.
I was too young (and perhaps too Northern) to understand or invest in the original series, but this production is aimed directly at its many fans. Julia goes on a “terminator” takedown rant, the sisters fight and rekindle their relationship, a romantic relationship develops and life goes on. As a sitcom should, “Designing Women” wraps like you might expect – happily, and after growth from most of the characters. I’m curious how the show might grow in the future, too.