By Erin Fleming
Picture It! A Golden Girls Musical at MCL is a campy, goofy, and strangely constructed romp of an homage musical, full of triumphant individual performances burdened by odd staging and an over-complicated story.
But Jeff Bouthiette and Jay Steigmann’s script is funny and fast enough that most of it goes by before the missteps interfere with the joy of it.
More than 30 years after its network TV debut, the feminine mystique of The Golden Girls lives on, continuing to delight both its original and ever-growing fan base. The daily challenges of Rose, Blanche, Sophia and Dorothy, four older women who start off as roommates and become family to one another, might have seemed like unlikely source material for a smash hit in 1985, but the show was an instant popular and critical success, due in no small part to the the legendary comedy chops of Bea Arthur, Betty White, Rue McClanahan, and Estelle Getty. It remains one of only three shows in sitcom history that can claim Emmy wins for all its stars, and new generations are turning out in great numbers to watch the original program on Hulu.
Its seemingly universal and enduring appeal has traveled to the stage a few times, perhaps most notably in 2003, when an off-Broadway production comprised of two back-to-back episodes and featuring an all-male cast in drag ran only a few months until halted by a cease and desist order from the television show’s creators. Here in Chicago, two productions celebrating life on the lanai overlap this season. In addition to the musical at MCL, Hell In A Handbag’s summer hit The Golden Girls – the Lost Episodes is transferring to Stage 773 to extend a late night edition of its run through November.
The strength of Picture It is its performances. Casey Coppess, Beau Nolan and Michael Silver turn in uncannily spot-on renditions of sex-crazed Blanche, deadpan Dorothy and sweet, ditzy Rose. Mel Bee recreates the mannerisms and delivery of Sophia equally as well before a plot twist takes her character(s) down a confusing path involving a cross-over with another hit series from the 80’s. Bouthiette and Steigmann’s witty tunes provide each of them with some wonderful character-revealing, vocal showcases. Nolan has a great gospel run during Do I Need A Man that is pure LaBelle, and even though there is no good rhyme for “Dorothy,” the three of them harmonize beautifully during the end of Life on the Lanai. The delightfully hummable score is expertly handled by a trio of keyboards, guitar and drums. (On opening night it was tough to hear some of the lyrics over the music.)
Ashley Geron’s Stan, though not as fine-tuned an imitation as the other roles, is funny in its own ridiculous, crowd-participatory way, as is the ensemble: Courtney Crary, Danni Krehbiel and Heather Scholl.
Sheena Laird’s hilarious choreography, although cramped at times by a cluttered set, often steals the scene, especially during a fantastic (and completely out of nowhere) soft shoe moment by Crary and Krehbiel. Their goons-in-love subplot, as good as it is apropos of well, nothing, deserves its own spinoff a la The Golden Palace.
Golden Girls fans will enjoy a healthy serving of all the show’s favorite bits. There are stories of old Sicily and St. Olaf, sex jokes about Blanche, dumb jokes about Rose and an extended reference to Sophia’s rival Mama Celeste and cheesecake, cheesecake, cheesecake. As wonderful as the portrayals are (Coppess’ dramatic flop on the couch! Nolan’s unaltered male pitch! Silver’s Bambie-esque eyelash fluttering!) they did seem to be less a group of friends supporting each other and more like women on their own individual journeys than in the original show, and that’s something to reconsider. A more faithful representation of the core friendship between the ladies might anchor this production in a way to make the wild deviations from it even funnier.
The show enjoys beloved icon status in the LGBTQ community, and not just because the pilot episode featured an openly gay houseboy or that the writers addressed the AIDS crisis and gay marriage way ahead of the national sitcom curve. In his book, Golden Girls Forever: An Unauthorized Look Behind the Lanai, Jim Colucci talks about watching the show as a closeted teenager and being pulled in by an underlying sense of self-advocacy in the characters, something that he feels still resonates with LGBTQ people in 2017.
“There is this idea that you won’t grow old alone, and just like gay people, who often build their own surrogate families, so did the girls,” he explains. “Here were the four of them, who chose to be together as a family, and they were going to stick through it. They were in one house, where it was safe, it’s always fun, and you could always be fabulous.”
That fun part is key, and that’s where MCL’s production definitely shines. Zooming by at one hour and twenty minutes with no intermission, it’s worth a bit of a bumpy ride.
MCL Chicago presents “Picture It! A Golden Girls Musical” Performances through October 7 at 3110 N. Sheffield Ave., Chicago. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Michael Shepherd Jordan.