Thank You For Being A Friend is like watching an extended episode of the TV series, Golden Girls, except that the four female leads are replaced with puppets. The show is a treat and is being performed at the Seymour Centre as a part of the 2014 Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras. It also contains all of those endearing hallmarks that made the original show so popular.
The TV series originally aired from 1985 to 1992 and was a comedy show based on the lives of four older, female housemates. There was the strong and scowling leader, Dorothy Zbornak and her sharp-tongued yet wise mother, Sophia Petrillo. They lived with big-hearted idiot, Rose Nylund and the Southern Belle, lustful vixen and owner of the house, Blanche Devereaux. For seven years the series tackled various gay issues including coming out, same-sex marriage, AIDS and discrimination with HIV, as well as other topics like: homelessness, aged care and sexual relationships amongst the elderly.
Thank You For Being A Friend tackles some of the same issues with the same razor-fire wit as the original. Blanche’s (Chrystal de Brussa) son, Jeremiah (Nigel Turner-Carroll, who also doubles as the dance instructor and pizza boy), has returned home to tell his mother that she will soon be a grandmother. Jeremiah is gay and he and his partner are having a child through a surrogate mother. Blanche bristles at the idea of being considered ‘old’ and a granny, especially as she has recently discovered that author, E.L. James has stolen her life story and turned it into the best-selling book, Fifty Shades Of Grey.
The story continues with Dorothy (Darren Mapes) having to take Sophia (Donna Lee) to the doctor. Sophia doesn’t like visiting the surgery, so Dorothy has to promise to take her to Disneyland instead, while Sophia gets up to her usual, cheeky antics. Rose (Julia Billington) meanwhile, is trying to get someone to help her write a song for the Miami Tourist Board competition.
The plot to this theatre production is very authentic, especially as some of the scenes appeared at least in part in the original series(For example: the girls fight over the same date and same dress; Sophia and Blanche discuss writer’s block and liken it to constipation, and Sophia tries to create a new pasta sauce). There are other scenes that are completely original and use modern jokes and references, like Guantanamo Bay and The Kardashians, but you would’ve sworn they were all a part of the original.
This live production and homage does an excellent job of not only recapturing the spirit of the TV show, but it also helps to recreate the period in time when it was popular. From the moment the audience walks into the theatre, they are greeted with a soundtrack from the period which included songs like: New Kids On The Block’s “You Got It (The Right Stuff)”, Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up”, Dave Dobbyn & Herbs’ “Slice Of Heaven” and Bobby McFerrin’s”Don’t Worry Be Happy”.
The cast also recreated the opening and closing credits from the show and the same insert music is also used in-between scenes. But perhaps the biggest and most pleasing surprise of the night was the addition of some old TV advertisements between acts. This had us all singing along to the old Decore jingle; wanting to munch along with the alien from Smith’s crisps; and remembering old TV and film favourites like Family Ties and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?.
Each character was introduced superbly, with Sophia likening her old retirement village, Shady Pines to Guantanamo Bay with bed pans, while Blanche was likened to a bicycle. Rose was described as the most out of touch woman in Miami and like the TV program, there were plenty of stories from Sicily in the 1920s. Rose also had lots of painful St. Olaf stories and these were topped off with her funny, nonsense words. The original TV set showing Devereaux’s lounge room and kitchen were recreated beautifully and the girls did get a chance to share a cheesecake and talk about sex, baby.
The puppets were good physical caricatures of the four original actresses (Bea Arthur, Betty White, Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty). The actors/puppeteers/voiceover artists all did a superb job of creating the characters, especially as they only had a working mouth and hand and minimal costume changes. In some cases, Chrystal de Brussa was a little over-the-top as Blanche, but this melodrama only added comedic value to the storyline, plus she had her mannerisms (like preening and clutching her bosom) completely down-pat.
The four actors also performed the different accents perfectly. They also managed to get a great mix of heart and comedy, which was good because this was something that typified the original. They would break down the fourth wall at times to engage with the audience and they even managed to throw in some impromptu singing and dancing to keep things interesting and the energy high.
It was no easy task for Thank You For Being A Friend to tackle such a much-loved and lauded TV show, but ultimately the play worked. It had the right combination of good acting and puppetry plus an entertaining storyline. It was so believable that you could imagine it being either a sequel to the original show or at least something like Seinfeld 2000 in that it was updating an older program to a modern setting. Thank You For Being A Friend is ultimately a warm, clever and funny play that is just like an old buddy in that you never want to let them go.
Originally published on 15 February 2014 at the following website: http://www.theaureview.com/arts/sydney/review/thank-you-for-being-a-friend-seymour-centre-13-02-14
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