After the recent political season we have all just made it through, the song “We Need A Little Christmas” has never seemed more apropos. So you won’t find this guy bemoaning yet another holiday-themed offering on area stages, already populated by Ebenezer Scrooge, dreamy little Clara, and even the Grinch. I have been playing Christmas songs for weeks and make no apologies for already having our home decorated for the season.
Silver Belles is just the right mix of hokum, heartfelt, and holly-jolly to warm the heart and raise the Christmas spirit quotient by a large degree. The small but mighty cast of stalwarts milks every bit of homespun humor and melodious mirth from this new show that could prove to be a staple on stages far and wide.
Growing up in the southwest section of Virginia and with relatives from rural Tennessee, I knew the idea of the characters in Silver Belles. I say the “idea” of the characters because they are more like types but ones based on the colorful, good-hearted, hometown folks who populate small towns, know everyone’s business and are intertwined in more ways than one. I grew up with real people who snapped pictures at funerals and discussed how natural a deceased party looked – which are both hilariously included in the opening number, “The Funeral” where everyone sings “Don’t she look good?”
Silver Belles draws inspiration from a variety of sources, such as TV tropes found in “The Andy Griffith Show” (small Southern town, church-based humor), “The Golden Girls” (gossipy, catty lady friends), as well as the down-home two-hander A Tuna Christmas (kooky characters, small town radio personalities and long-held traditions), The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (ragtag group pulls off a winner) and ultimately Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (seasonal redemption, help from beyond the grave).
Now this is not to say Silver Belles is derivative of such diverse works, but it has certainly been inspired thusly, and given new twists by book writer Allyson Currin. (For the record, the program identifies Cathy Alter and Sandra Johnson with the credit “based on an idea by”with no other explanation as to their contributions.)
From the top of the show we meet the citizens of Silver Ridge, Tennessee, as they are laying to rest the doyenne of town society and the mastermind of the annual Christmas pageant that the county home for orphans depends on for support. The death of director-writer-task-master Oralene (Donna Migliaccio) calls the question of whether her widowed husband Earl (Dan Manning) and her all female company of Belles can pull off the pageant without her leadership. And they had already announced the title of this year’s pageant: “A Christian Christmas for Christ.” If this sounds somewhat preposterous, I grew up in a community with at least three “living” outdoor nativity tableaux at various churches and an annual “Singing Christmas Tree” Choral event. So the idea of Silver Ridge’s seasonal pageant seemed like a little slice of home.
How will the show go on with no Oralene to write, direct, star and produce the jamboree? Like another tenacious musical heroine, Molly Brown, Oralene “ain’t down yet.” In fact, once she pops out of her casket, she begs the Lord to help her see why she is still hanging around Silver Ridge. The rest of us already figured it out but it’s still fun to watch Migliaccio banter with The Man Upstairs and the audience.
She gives us the rundown on the other characters, pointing out what is already obvious to everyone. There’s the oft-married, town flirt Gloria (Nova Y. Payton), wide-eyed, former beauty queen Ruth Ann (Peggy Yates), the crusty old loon of a taxidermist Berneice (Ilona Dulaski), and the not-so-feminine stage manager with a heart of gold, Bo-Jack (Naomi Jacobson). Oralene follows each of her Belles and gives them the little nudges they need to make the pageant happen in her earthly absence. I won’t spoil the specifics – seeing the shenanigans is part of the fun of this show – but let’s just say you might not think of the animals in the manger quite the same way again after Berneice’s rendition of “The Friendly Beasts.”
Raising the stakes beyond the spiritual guidance for the Belles, the heart of Currin’s story is really Earl’s recovery from grief and his quest to find both the music and the words for the big song that is introduced in the pageant each Christmas. Working with Oralene, Earl would provide the country-western tune and she would add the words. With his muse gone from his side, it takes the whole town of Silver Ridge to pull him out of his funk. There are tender moments that ring true to anyone who has lost a loved one, especially when facing the holidays with grief as the unwanted gift that keeps on giving. Oralene finds a way to inspire Earl, and – well, you can fill in the rest.
I must give a shout out to Jacob Kidder for turning a seasoned upright piano into a thing of beauty. Kidder is the accompanist who works non-stop for the 80 minute running time, adding mood, color, and a magnificent soundtrack to back up the sterling singer-actor-comics who are center stage. The music Kidder plays, by the way, is a balance of familiar, seasonal tunes, re-purposed with some new lyrics, as well as a handful of new tunes with music by Matt Conner. Conner and his frequent collaborator Stephen Gregory Smith provide the lyrics to the new songs.
closes December 31, 2016
Details and tickets
“We Three Kings” becomes “We Three Belles,” for example. A few days after seeing the show, I am trying to recall the new songs, and only the pivotal anthem “While the Gettin’ is Good” springs to my ear’s memory. But in the midst of the Silver Belles performance and for the moment, the songs do their job of painting the picture of the kooky array of characters and carry the “Best Little Christmas Pageant Ever-Silver Edition” theme to a satisfying musical conclusion.
The musical performances are served up to just about perfection, led by Donna Migliaccio, one of the region’s most recognizable leading ladies. She has the right blend of Rosalind Russell class and Dolly Parton twang to fill Oralene’s high heel shoes. Her reactions are nearly as priceless as her shining vocals. Payton is certainly a fan favorite at Signature and other DC stages and Conner and company has provided her with a great showcase piece celebrating mistletoe which she wraps her crystal clear voice around beautifully.
The other members of the Belles shine in their individual turns, and combine into a elder-Glee group with ease. As Earl, Dan Manning brings an authenticity to his portrayal of Oralene’s emotionally bereft husband and amateur tunesmith. Manning brings to mind the old school country singers my dad listened to years back and would be right at home on the Grand Ole Opry stage. Even as Oralene and Earl only talk to each other a few times in flashbacks, the chemistry between Migliaccio and Manning is strong.
Director Eric Schaeffer knows how to cast the right people and let them work their magic and Silver Belles is no exception. Working with choreographer Karma Camp, Schaeffer keeps the light on its feet show moving at a brisk pace, aided by the rustic and functional setting designed by James Kronzer. Kronzer’s work is aided by Kelly Rudolph’s lighting design, simple but very effective in the intimacy of the Ark Theatre space.
Is Silver Belles a new Christmas classic that deserves to be an annual offering? That remains to be seen, but I predict once more people experience the humor, the music, and the revised twist on a Christmas story of redemption and coming together, little theatres from far and wide will want to produce this small cast, big-hearted show.
Silver Belles . Music by Matt Conner . Lyrics by Matt Conner and Stephen Gregory Smith . Book by Allyson Currin . Director: Eric Schaeffer . Cast: Ilona Dulaski, Naomi Jacobson, Dan Manning, Donna Migliaccio, Nova Y. Payton, Peggy Yates . Music director: Warren Freeman . Pianist: Jacob Kidder . Choreographer: Karma Camp . Scenic designer: James Kronzer . Costume designer: Kathleen Geldard . Lighting Design: Kelly Rudolph . Associate Director: Walter Ware III . Stage manager: Julie Meyer . Produced by Signature Theatre . Reviewed by Jeff