Stage & Dance

Review: Studio's 'Belles' is as sweet as it is fun

Honey Raye (Robin Dickerson, right) tries to talk her sister Twink (Shea Baker) out of using her work release to go get revenge on her ex-boyfriend in Studio Players' Christmas Belles.
Honey Raye (Robin Dickerson, right) tries to talk her sister Twink (Shea Baker) out of using her work release to go get revenge on her ex-boyfriend in Studio Players' Christmas Belles. Lexington Herald-Leader

Who would like some Frito pie? The Futrelle sisters would like you to have some.

The big-haired, loud-mouthed, Southern trio with Texas-size hearts and a talent for troublemaking are back in Studio Players' latest holiday offering, Christmas Belles.

Christmas Belles is the second play in North Carolina playwrights Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten's Futrilogy, which started with Dearly Beloved, produced by Studio Players in 2009. This holiday play resurrects the kitschy Southern hijinks of the original play with a Christmas twist: Honey Raye Futrelle (Robin Dickerson) attempts to direct the best Christmas pageant that has ever graced the Tabernacle of the Lamb.

Honey Raye's sisters, the overly pregnant Franky (Debbie Sharp) and the revenge-mad, recently incarcerated Twink (Shea Baker), are behind the scenes to help, along with a host of colorful characters who punctuate the show's exaggerated take on the comedy of small-town life.

Director Tonda-Leah Fields is in her comfort zone working in this genre. She has been at the helm of many Southern comedies, and Christmas Belles reaps the reward of her experience, despite the limits of what is the play's admittedly fluffy material.

Fields excels at marshaling the timing of the dozen or so cast members who pepper the town of Fayro, Texas, with their colorful personalities. High-energy performances flow at a snappy pace and pelt the stage with an onslaught of joke after joke, gag after gag, and unabashed cornball fun.

This is a show that's not trying to change your life, but make you forget about it for at least a couple of hours. To that end, it succeeds.

Most of the show is set backstage at the Futrelles' church in a kind of makeshift green room, where the Frito pie, deep-fried jalapeños, and a dish called "pink stuff" await visitors. A rack of sparkly costumes and Lone Star decorations — such as a tinsel-covered stuffed deer with a Rudolph nose — rounds out the setting.

A stable of wacky townsfolk come and go as Honey Raye attempts to make her directorial debut, Bethlehamapalooza, complete with an appearance by Elvis, the best holiday event of the tri-county area.

Dickerson shines as Honey Raye. Dressed in silver pants, she plays the reputation-vexed, hyper-sensual sister with palpable gusto, anchoring the energy of the show with a stage presence and accent as big as her teased hair.

Sharp and Baker likewise deliver in their roles as Frankie Futrelle Dubberly and Twink Futrelle.

They particularly do well in their mastery of the quick-witted, back-and-forth banter that, to borrow a phrase from Sharp's program biography, "puts the fun in dysfunctional."

The three sisters share a spunky chemistry and keep the show's pell-mell comedy from ever sagging.

Bob Kinstle's set and David Bratcher's lighting prove an adequate Lone Star framework, but it is costuming by Ellen Hellard, Sarah Kelley, Darlene Drayer and Janet Kinstle that inject a silent visual humor into the show. Their gaudy getups are just ridiculous enough and just real-world accurate enough to garner a few laughs of their own.

The evening is so chock full of activity and harried plot lines that it can be overwhelming. One gets the sense that for Belles, the playwrights took the elements of Dearly Beloved and put them on steroids for Christmas.

The opening-night crowd was sold out, as is most of the show, and heartily responded to the no-holds-barred comedy, but I became a little worn out by the time the finale's Christmas sing-along ended the play. It was sort of like I had been eating the Tabernacle's "pink stuff," a combination of JELL-O and whipped cream, for two hours. It was good at first, but after a while my belly hurt.

But for those with a bigger appetite for Southern-fried comedy, Christmas Belles does the trick. It's a lot like Frito pie: not the most sophisticated dish, but people eat it up.

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