When they chose to parody the 1980s sitcom Designing Women, Varla Jean Merman (aka Jeffery Roberson), Ricky Graham, Brian Peterson and Jack Long knew there would be an audience for their version. During opening night at Mid-City Theatre, when Graham delivered Julia Sugarbaker’s YouTube-immortalized tirade defending her sister Suzanne’s beauty pageant achievements, most of the audience joined in — not just mouthing the words, but following the steadily rising volume and intensity to the dramatically staggered final pronouncement about “The night the lights went out in Georgia.”
Redesigning Women features three reworked and barely stitched together episodes of the sitcom. In the first, the four coworkers in an Atlanta interior design firm travel to New Orleans for a convention and each delves into their own indulgence. The segment intertwines the show’s take on women appropriating power — in running a business and addressing social issues — and local humor about clueless tourists who explore the city and plunge into hedonistic excess while far away from home. The middle segment is the beauty pageant episode, and the final third features a talent contest, in which the four performers morphed into new guises for a show-ending musical bit, which is more obviously the end than a show-stopping number.
The sitcom was more character driven than a formula for endless punchlines, but Redesigning Women sticks to punchlines and visual gags, keeping the drama very light and sometimes silly. The parodied characters also match comic roles several of the actors have excelled at before, especially Varla as a vapid and cartoonishly busty Charlene. Varla was hilarious throughout the show, deadpanning Charlene’s fatuous understanding of the world and sudden concerns about the menace of killer bees and exploding stewardesses. Peterson sparkled as a self-absorbed and overly done up Suzanne, Delta Burke’s character on the sitcom. One of his funniest scenes was a silent spree of facial expressions of intense concentration as Suzanne practices her baton-twirling routine without a baton. Graham masterfully delivered several of Sugarbaker’s classic rants, exaggerating her condescending tone, especially in scenes punctuated by embarrassing mishaps.
During set changes, famous commercials were projected on a large screen off stage, and the mix included local classics (for Franky and Johnny’s Furniture, Al Scramuzza’s Seafood City and Becky Allen as a spokesperson for Universal Furniture) and memorable ads from the 1970s and 1980s, which echoed some of the local nostalgia incorporated into the show. Overall, it has a fun mix of easy laughs and familiar references and also a few surprises.
May 30- June 2 & June 17
8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. & 6 p.m. Sunday, 8 p.m. Monday
Mid-City Theatre, 3540 Toulouse St., (504) 488-1460