TheatreSquared's newest production has a pretty amazing pedigree: This coming week, the company will open a stage version of the iconic television show "Designing Women," which debuted in 1986 and garnered 18 Emmy Award nominations during its seven-year run. Original creators Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and Harry Thomason are along for the ride, with Bloodworth-Thomason writing the script and Thomason directing (and T2 co-founder and associate artistic director Amy Herzberg co-directing).
"We couldn't be more thrilled than to be collaborating with this storied Hollywood team, Linda and Harry, helping them usher their latest creation to the stage -- and right here in Arkansas, where they have deep roots," says T2 Artistic Director Robert Ford. "And how completely fun to premiere a witty comedy that's loaded with spot-on observations about the current scene."
The first episode of the series introduced four indomitable women to the world: Julia and Suzanne Sugarbaker, partners in an Atlanta design firm; Charlene Frazier, the firm's office manager; and Mary Jo Shively, its head designer. Immediately, the show asserted itself as one that would make social commentary the beating heart of its comedy. Toward the end of episode one, Julia unleashes a fiery tongue-lashing on a man in a restaurant who is trying to interrupt the women's conversation with a slimy pick-up line: "There's no need for introductions, Ray Don, we know who you are," is the quotable sentence that begins her address, actress Dixie Carter's rage simmering just barely below the surface. Julia's eloquent, passionate rants -- as well as the rest of Bloodworth-Thomason's whippet-quick dialogue, rife with zingers -- would become a signature of the show as it tackled weighty social issues of the 1980s and early 1990s like AIDS discrimination, LGBTQ rights, misogyny and sexual harassment.
Bloodworth-Thomason's new script carries that legacy into the 21st century as the audience learns what the women at Sugarbakers think about of-the-moment social issues.
"What I really wanted to do was take those women as we last saw them and set them down right now," Bloodworth-Thomason said in an interview with The New York Times when the show was announced. "They'll have the same history, be the same people, have the same attitudes, the same philosophies, but they'll be talking about #MeToo and the Kardashians and Donald Trump and all that's going on right now."
"'Designing Women' was written and created by a woman, and I don't think a lot of people pay homage to that -- they may recognize it, but they don't really credit her with being one of the trailblazers in that regard," says actor Carla Renata, who plays the character of Cleo, newly introduced in the play's script as cousin to Anthony Bouvier, an original character on the television show. Renata was last seen on Broadway as Gary Coleman in "Avenue Q" and has worked on the national tours of "Smokey Joe's Cafe," "The Who's Tommy," "The Lion King" and "We Will Rock You." Currently, she's the creator and host of a popular podcast called "The Curvy Critic with Carla Renata." Her Cleo is a blunt, funny truth teller who is not afraid to address any elephants that might be hiding in the corners of the room.
"I feel like Cleo's sensibility and her personality is to carry on [her cousin, Anthony's] lineage within the confines of that world," says Renata. "Cleo is gay. She's married, she has a child -- she represents what society is now. Back then, they were talking anti-gay, they were thinking that you could get AIDS from touching people -- it was a very different world then. Now we live in a world where we see same sex couples, we see same sex marriages, we see the LGBTQ community fighting for their rights, just like everybody else has fought for their rights -- women, black people, indigenous people. She's a symbol of the social revolution that has taken place since the show premiered on television."
Watching the original show had an impact on her as a young woman, says Renata.
"I think that Linda Bloodworth-Thomason's writing is very sharp, is very blunt -- it has a definitive female voice to it. And I appreciated that, even as a youngster. I appreciated watching that. And I appreciated hearing these actors spout out these long monologues that, at the end of the day, had this very powerful message at the end."
Sarah Colonna is a University of Arkansas graduate who cut her teeth in Hollywood as a stand-up comic and later went on to sit on the "Chelsea Lately" roundtable, appear in the television shows "Insatiable" and "Shameless" and author two best-selling memoirs. She says the original show made an impression on her as well.
"They were showing clips of the last night at this [Designing Women Drag Dinner, a collaboration between Northwest Arkansas Equality, TheatreSquared and the Symphony of Northwest Arkansas,] of Julia's speech about AIDS, telling a woman off for [being homophobic], and, oh my God, everyone in the room was crying," says Colonna. "There's so much credit to be given to Linda and to Harry for being the first people to speak out about certain things on television."
Renata and Colonna are joined on stage by a slate of actors with equally impressive resumes -- but more importantly, T2 and Thomason have cast actors who embody the spirit of these well-loved characters without resorting to imitation or caricature. Carmen Cusack, a musical theater legend, finds Julia Sugarbaker's wry imperiousness with ease (Katherine LaNasa will pick up the role for the second half of the run); Amy Pietz, veteran of television comedies like "Caroline in the City" and "Modern Family," delivers Suzanne's tart -- usually misguided -- social commentary with wide-eyed, self-centered precision; native southerner Elaine Hendrix -- who, in roles like Alexis Carrington in the recent reboot of "Dynasty" and Meredith Blake in "The Parent Trap," has no trouble showing her steely side -- exudes warmth and humor in her portrayal of Charlene; and Colonna nails Mary Jo's tricky combination of witty sarcasm and empathy. In addition to Cleo, a second new Sugarbakers employee is added to the mix -- television and movie actress Kim Matula (credits include "Fighting With My Family," "UnREAL" and "The Bold and the Beautiful") is charmingly naive as Charlene's younger sister Haley, comically aghast at some of the topics of conversation in the office. R. Ward Duffy ("Blindspot," "Madame Secretary") plays a potential love interest for Julia, and Matthew Floyd Miller ("Call of the Wild," "Not About Nightingales") plays Suzanne's Trump-crazy ex-husband.
Colonna says the process of translating these popular characters from the television screen to the stage has been intimidating at times.
"I want to do it justice, I want to do Annie Potts justice, but I don't want to mimic her," she says. "It's a tricky line -- I don't want to mimic an actress playing a role, I want to give homage to what she brought to the role. I think that's a big part that everyone feels a responsibility about -- making sure that you don't see these characters and go, 'No, that doesn't add up or match up.' You want people to believe that we're playing these iconic characters that were on for so long."
Given the popularity of the original show, it's a good bet that many people will flock to this production, eager to see the characters they remember so fondly sound off on the current state of the world. The good news is the particular magic of the original show is present -- the incisive social commentary, the quick, funny banter, and likable actors that have you rooting for them every step of the way. In the end, Haley may just speak for "Designing Women" audiences when she says, "I just love the way y'all talk! And you have such colorful personalities. This is gonna be fun."
Hits Big Time
Sarah Colonna had great success in the theater department of the University of Arkansas, bringing her singular sense of precision comic timing to shows like “Reckless” and “Sexual Perversity in Chicago.” Those who saw her on stage then were not surprised when she courageously struck out for the wilds of Los Angeles immediately following graduation, taking on the stand-up comedy circuit.
“Starting stand-up in Los Angeles is certainly one of the hardest ways to do it,” she said in a previous interview with this newspaper. “You’re starting with all of these other people who are experienced, because there were places they could perform where they came from. It definitely is a different style, especially since you’re no longer relying on someone else’s words — in stand-up, they’re all yours.”
She quickly gained a following and, before long, earned a place at the roundtable late-night comedy talk show “Chelsea Lately,” where her quick wit made her a standout. She would later work as a writer on the show, as well as a producer, writer and star of the show’s spin-off, “After Lately.” More recently, she used her native Southern accent and a hilarious flair for the bizarre in her starring role as Angie on the Netflix series “Insatiable” and had a recurring role on “Shameless.” Her movie roles include “Back in the Day,” “Paradise” and “Killing Hasselhoff.” Meanwhile, she somehow found time to write two bestselling memoirs: “Life as I Blow It” which debuted at No. 5 on The New York Times Bestseller list, and “Has Anyone Seen My Pants?” of which Publisher’s Weekly said that she “maintains her signature charm and caustic humor, and the final chapter’s happy ending is worth sticking around for.”
Bringing the role of Mary Jo Shively to the T2 stage will be the first time Colonna has worked with TheatreSquared.
“I had to really wrap my brain around it: ‘How is this in Fayetteville, though? That’s where I went to college!’” she says of the theater company. “It’s so great, because I never get to spend this much time here. There are certain things where I think, ‘Oh, I forgot how much I love this!’ It’s kind of nice to see how much it’s changed, and in what ways it’s changed — everything, to me, being a positive. And having this theater here — we didn’t have anything like this when I was in school here.”
Colonna still has a large coterie of family in the area who, she says, are excited at the prospect of seeing her onstage in Fayetteville again.
“My mom is already stressed about where she’s going to sit, where the best view is, just all the questions,” she says with a laugh. “I have a bunch of family coming.”
Colonna’s mother works just off the Fayetteville square, a few blocks away from TheatreSquared, and Colonna marvels at the ease with which she walked up to see her and have coffee with her after a rehearsal — quite a difference from the 1,500 miles that usually separates her from her family.
“And the first day I got here, I went up there and borrowed her car,” says Colonna with a laugh. “I said, ‘I have to run some errands, can I borrow your car?’ and she said, ‘Oh my God, it’s just like you’re 16 years old again.’”
Follow Sarah Colonna at sarahcolonna.com/events. and @sarahcolonna1