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That Golden Girls Show! - A Puppet Parody

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 4, 2016

Cat Greenfield (with the Blanche puppet), Arlee Chadwick (Rose),
Emmanuelle Zeesman (Sophia) and Michael LaMasa (Dorothy)
Photo by Russ Rowland

If you have any doubts of the grip a particular 1980s sitcom about four post-menopausal women sharing a house in Miami still has on the culture—or at least the New York-based Off-Broadway theatregoing culture—they're dispelled within the first seconds of That Golden Girls Show! - A Puppet Parody, which is now playing at the DR2 Theatre. When the lights dim and that theme song plays, sans lyrics, the audience can't help singing along. A couple of nervous voices, at first tentative, are joined by more and more until the entire audience seems to vocalize as one, "Thank you for being a fri-e-e-end."

On one hand, it's remarkable to witness, as a sense of communion that total is rare at any show these days. On the other, though, it's no surprise at all, as that was indeed the mission statement of The Golden Girls (NBC, 1985 to 1992), and certainly is of this fuzzy valentine, which was conceived, written, and directed by Jonathan Rockefeller. Everything about this ultra-faithful entertainment suggests that Rockefeller, and anyone who attends, want to thank the show not for its frank (maybe too-frank?) depiction of mature women navigating their twilight years, but for being a beacon of laughter and hope in a world where that kind of stability is rarely a sure thing. Beyond the tunes—the scene transition and even end credits music sound as though they could have been lifted wholesale (Nate Edmondson is credited with composition and sound design—the sunny set (by David Goldstein) is a pitch-perfect recreation of the living room and kitchen where most of the action took place. (Sorry, though, there's no lanai.) Had Rockefeller wanted this to look and feel more like the real thing, I don't know that he could have swung it.

That fidelity, though, comes at a heavy cost: Once the tribute-paying wears thin, so does the show itself. And if you're guessing that that occurs at about the 30-minute mark in this 90-minute evening, you would be correct. After all, television comedies of that era—and, for the most part, ours today—don't have through lines so much as vague premises that can allow for multiple seasons of open-ended wackiness. Putting deadpan substitute teacher Dorothy Zbornak, her irascible (and ancient) mother Sophia Petrillo, and Minnesotan ditz Rose Nylund in the sunny bungalow of oversexed Georgian belle Blanche Devereaux occurred within a few minutes in the first episode; everything thereafter unfolded as variations on the theme of these incompatible atoms colliding over and over to create comedic fusion, and that's tough to sustain for more than a half-hour at a time.

Rockefeller hits the expected marks, and piles on enough of the basic gags (sex, cheesecake, St. Olaf, "Picture it," and so on) that some snickering is assured if you have even basic knowledge with the material. But Rockefeller mires himself so much in the past that he doesn't allow himself to develop anything new from the familiar building blocks. That's deadly over an hour and a half, especially when the plot is some unrecountable nonsense at the intersection of a failed herring circus, botched plastic surgery, and the death of the aunt of Dorothy's waterlogged ex-husband, Stanley, which leads the ladies to fight over him to obtain his sizable inheritance. Compacted, maybe it would be funny, but too much is too arid for it to work as structured here.

Assuming you want nothing more from it, That Golden Girls Show! does get the basic idea right, and, thanks to the outstanding puppet design and direction of Joel Gennari and a couple of key members of the cast, is loaded with individual moments any fan of the series will adore. Michael LaMasa has mastered Dorothy's chortle-inducing side-eye and tut-tut schoolmarm mannerisms as filtered through felt, and brings to bear a voice that so echoes with Beatrice Arthur's distinctive basso profundo, you'll swear at times it's her onstage barking out critical phrases like "Shady Pines, ma!" and "Who-oa!" And Cat Greenfield is an utter joy as Blanche, flawlessly evoking Rue McClanahan's melodramatic musicality and Southern-fried insatiability, without losing sight of the needy, terrified woman within.

On the TV show, though, everyone was spectacular, which is not the case here. Arlee Chadwick's one-dimensional-nitwit Rose is completely lacking in the sincere warmth Betty White brought to the role, and without it, the character is just plain irritating. Emmanuelle Zeesman's delivery is not remotely pointed enough to achieve the kind of precise blood extraction Estelle Getty managed on a minute-by-minute basis as Sophia. (Unlike with LaMasa and Greenfield, neither the puppets nor their operators' voices recall the originals at all, which only makes matters worse.) Zach Kononov is a wash as Stanley: He nails the drive and the underlying regret, but can't land the jokes that represent his necessary (and insufficient) defense mechanisms against Dorothy and Sophia.

Ideally, the actors wouldn't be so locked in to their portrayals; through the puppets, they would transcend fact to create something bigger, broader, and somehow truer to life than the genuine article. That never happens here, as copying rather than distilling was the apparent goal. It doesn't mean you won't have a good time—I did, despite of all the saggy spots—but unless you're a superfan of the show who's starved for this sort of rigorous treatment, you are not likely to have a great one. You may walk into That Golden Girls Show! thinking, "Thank you for being a friend," but you'll walk out being content to wait another quarter-century to catch up again.

That Golden Girls Show! - A Puppet Parody
Through December 11
DR2 Theater, 103 East 15th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule:

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