Show feels like entry into special ‘Designing Women’ club

Ermrm … How did this one slip by me for so long?

I am a professional journalist, after all, trained in the fine art of sniffing out news and trends almost before they happen. And I’m such a TV junkie, they’re gonna have to pry the remote from my cold, dead hands and bury me in a flat-screen coffin.

And yet there I was Friday night at OnStage Atlanta in Decatur seeing “Designing Women LIVE” for the first time.

“Designing Women LIVE 9,” to be precise. Although, in my defense, it’s “only” been running for six years. And tickets are nearly impossible to score.

Anyone with enough money and hideous-colored pairs of Bermuda shorts could get into the Masters last week. But all 10 “DWL” performances sold out faster than you can yell “fore!”

Maybe that says something about “Designing Women’s” enduring appeal, especially here. The 1986-1993 CBS sitcom was set in an Atlanta so authentic, it knowingly referenced the Big Chicken and I-285 gridlock. Meanwhile, there’s just something about a man as a dame. “DWL’s” four main characters, the ladies of Sugarbakers & Associates design firm, are always played by men.

“People ask us, why don’t you schedule more shows,” Topher Payne, aka “Julia Sugarbaker,” confided during a rehearsal, where he and his longtime co-stars ran lines and practiced walking on sky-high heels. “But we want to keep demand high.”

Indeed, Friday night felt like being let into some exclusive, slightly secret club. Everyone seemed to have been there before for “Designing Women LIVE’s 1-8” or to have come with someone who had. A bar in the lobby did a brisk business, notably the guy in front of me (hey, when in Rome …) who bought a full bottle of wine and carried it into the theater.

The show began with a near word-for-word, big-shoulderpads-and-bigger-hairdos re-creation of an episode where Julia’s teen son springs his 40-something cougar girlfriend on the ladies. Like the opening cork pop of bottle service, the audience erupted into applause as soon as the lights came up on the familiar Sugarbakers set: an overstuffed couch and Charlene’s (tall, sweetly trusting Stuart Schleuse) lone desk in a “business” where little work ever happened.

Some lines got such big laughs — five words: “Miss Valdosta Feed and Grain” — the actors had to pause and you suddenly remembered how funny and unapologetically female-empowering the sitcom was. You almost forgot it was men playing women up there. Like me, you may even have found yourself thinking they were better at it than the TV show’s stars sometimes.

“We’re all experienced theater people, and we don’t try to play it over-the-top or be drag queens,” said DeWayne Morgan, artistic director for Process Theatre, a resident company at OnStage. His Suzanne Sugarbaker captures the ex-beauty queen in all her eyerolling, unabashedly self-absorbed glory. “We are acting the part.”

(For what it’s worth, Johnny Drago says his Mary Joe Shively is more an homage to actress Annie Potts as Mary Jo Shively. Whatever. The character’s giant, untamed head of hair and laugh grew more hilarious as the show went on.)

In 2008, Payne and Morgan were part of a group that performed “The Golden Girls Live!” as an AID Atlanta fundraiser. Soon after, a letter arrived from the show’s syndicator essentially saying, “Don’t ever do that again.” Enter “DWL,” at first a twice annual fundraiser for OnStage and Process. Then a phone call came from an assistant to that sitcom’s creator, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason. Gulp. But it turned out she loved the concept and even sent along TV Julia’s signature large spectacles, which Payne sports in “DWL 9.”

Meanwhile, the legend (quietly) grows. The second half of the show is a mashup of two popular episodes. In one, Julia gets stuck on jury duty, and in the other, Suzanne persuades Sugarbakers’ long-suffering deliveryman Anthony (Parris Sarter) to play her Salvadoran maid at the INS.

Sarter, incidentally, is a woman. Or, in this case, a woman playing a man playing a woman.

You were expecting anything less from “DWL”?

“It’s kind of an inside-Atlanta, inside-baseball thing,” said veteran audience member Charles Ogilvie. “This is what makes Atlanta cool.”

Glad to do my part.


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