"Laughter is the only medicine any of us can afford that doesn't come from Canada," quips Rhonda Lynn Lampley, one of the characters in Christmas Belles. The show, now onstage at Asheville Community Theatre, is filled with snappy one-liners, slapstick and camp -- and enough kitschy holiday cheer to make even the biggest scrooge run out and buy Elvis Presley's If Every Day Was Like Christmas.
For theater-goers who caught the debut of Dearly Beloved at ACT almost exactly a year ago, much of Belles will seem familiar -- and for good reason. Belles is the sequel to Beloved, and the second in a trilogy from playwrighting trio Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten.
For those who missed the first installment (which revolves around three sisters in Fayro, Texas), Belles stands on its own. And for Southern viewers, especially, the themes touched in the play, while somewhat cliched and definitely over the top, hit close to home. And when it comes to the holiday season, isn't that "close to home" feeling what most of us are trying to capture, anyway?
Whose line is it, anyway?
Here's the setup: Forty-something Frankie Futrelle is nine months into a surprise pregnancy with her second set of twins. One of Frankie's sisters, Twink, is in jail for accidentally burning down a trailer park while trying to exact revenge on her two-timing ex. The other sibling, Honey Rae, is doing her best to salvage a reputation for being a floozy by directing the Christmas pageant at the town church.
It's a redneck take on Murphy's Law: If something can go wrong it will. But for the Futrelles and the rest of Fayro's residents, mishaps lead to laughs.
Part of the magic of Belles is its sitcom-style predictability. Which is not to say that the audience knows the outcome from the get-go. Instead, there's a well-thumbed pattern of jokes, body language and punch lines followed by fade-outs. It's the same sort of formula that made I Love Lucy work. While no one could take Lucy, with her big eyes and 'o' of a mouth, too seriously, audiences couldn't get enough of her.
Belles offers up similar characters. Bossy Miss Geneva, with her cowgirl boots and mangled Spanglish, opens the play (as she did Beloved) from her flower shop/bus station. Naive Gina Jo is more comfortable talking about inseminating cows than discussing commitment with her equally innocent preacher boyfriend Justin. Sheriff John Curtis draws heavily from Barney Fife, and prudish Patsy Price is the antagonist everyone loves to hate.
But the character who steals the show is Reynard, played by Frank Salvo. A potent blend of Rainman, Forrest Gump and Mary Katherine Gallagher, his few lines are delivered with such panache that just the sight of him, fur cap askew, is enough to crack up the audience. But it's Reynard's nasal refrain, "I just love Christmas," that deserves cult-repetition, like "Schwing!" from Wayne's World or Jerry Maguire's "Show me the money!"
The best Christmas pageant ever
What's typical of Christmas-themed plays, beyond angels, Santas, and tinsel, is the din of tired messages being paraded across the stage. "Family is the most important thing" (if that's true, why do so many of spend so much time trying to avoid our relatives?), "'Tis better to give than it is to receive" (just try telling that to a 5-year-old facing down an empty stocking) and "Love thy neighbor" (nice idea, but lots of folks would rather invest in privacy fencing). In some ways, Belles is no different. It comes with a moral of sorts -- you'll have to watch the play to find out what the message is.
But, in this production, the syrupy, feel-good conclusion -- while no less saccharine than most seasonal performances -- goes down easily. The whole show is a fluffy confection verging on guilty pleasure. The cliches hit home, the characters read like batty impersonations of people everyone knows, and the jokes are delivered with just the right timing. So who cares if it gets a little "God bless us, everyone" in the final moments?
The schlock is well-balanced with goofiness. There's a vicious sheep, a rancid Santa suit and Elvis performing "Love Thee Tender." In some ways, Belles is a comic sketch of the holidays gone terribly awry. In other ways, it offers up the best of all possibilities: That yes, families are crazy and nothing is predictable, but in the end it all falls together to create a perfectly beautiful mess, with one zinger of a punch line.
Christmas Belles runs at ACT through Sunday, Dec. 3. with performances Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $20, $18 for seniors, $10 for students. 254-1320.
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