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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘The Hallelujah Girls’ lets loose mirth in Manitowoc

Critic At Large

The St. John's Players

Program cover.

MANITOWOC, Wis. (WFRV) – Sugar Lee beat Bunny to the punch, buying a former church to turn it into the Spa-Dee-Dah instead of The Bunny Sutherland Museum. Sugar Lee is taking a big chance on starting her business from scratch. But she tells her friends, “Life is not Jell-O. When it’s set, it’s done for life.” They’re all for her. One thing does not change: Sugar Lee and Bunny have been arch enemies since high school in Eden Falls, Georgia. Now Bunny has scheme up her sleeve to grab the place away no matter how hard Sugar Lee and her goofy and loyal friends try.

That’s some of “The Hallelujah Girls,” which is like TV sitcom series boiled down to a couple of hours. It’s a fun play for a community theater.

It’s by one of the brand names in community theater plays, Jones Hope Wooten. Sure-fire accessible comedy is the trademark of stage and screen writing veterans Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten. The three create mirthful stories and colorful characters with Southern flavorings. Quips and one-liners and !!!’s fill the air.

And so it is with “The Hallelujah Girls,” a comedy that is part of a new venture for The St. John’s Players.

Claran LaViolette, director of “The Hallelujah Girls,” says, “Though St. John’s Players has been around in one form or another since 2003, we have regrouped during the pandemic, are in the process of becoming a viable non-profit performing arts group, and are pleased to present our first production at The Franciscan Center for Music Education and Performance – formerly Silver Lake College.”

Basic setup for “The Hallelujah Girls.” (Warren Gerds)

The troupe performs once a year in summer so as not to take away from long-established The Masquers, in which many of the current show’s cast performs, Claran LaViolette says.

While “The Hallelujah Girls” is not as tightly wrapped as other Jones Hope Wooten plays, it has the usual entourage of catchy characters. The players give a sense they are getting a kick out of all the quirks.

Sugar Lee (Darcy Gravelle) is pretty much the normal one. She is wrestling with business and Bunny’s schemes – and a forever feud with a one-time fiancé.

That fellow, Bobby Dwayne (J Gravelle), has been down on his luck since a fateful night. How bad has his luck been? “Life’s been a vortex of unspeakable grief,” he says. That’s the kind of line that Jones Hope Wooten drops all over the place.

Carlene (Ellen Peronto) is three times a widow through dumb mishap, and she’s on the lookout when cheery mailman Porter (Gregg Wolf) comes looking for her.

Mavis (Kathy Kowalski) is miserably married to a lump.

Nita (Ann Wolf) takes comfort from a ne’er do well grown son in romantic novels she describes in gaudy, drivelous detail.

Bunny (Tina Prigge) is a wannabe Grinch who stole the spa, all dressed up.

Speaking of all dressed up, there’s Crystal (Cindy Bradley), who has a costume for every holiday and a comically adapted Christmas tune to go with it.

There’s a lot of all-dressed-up in this show. Claran LaViolette not only directs this production, she is costumer. With six scenes, that’s six costume changes – primarily for the five women. That’s 30 costumes for starters. Some that are especially elaborate are the Statue of Liberty (with the torch) for Crystal and a beer garden girl with pigtails for Nita.

The performance space has pluses and minuses. Plus: It’s available. Minus: It’s built for concerts, not theatrical presentations, so the set situation is a bit make-do. Plus: The concert hall acoustics let voices carry unassisted. Plus: It’s comfortable, with real seats and real restrooms nearby.

The show is lively and funny and nicely played by actors who know their way around a story with a dusting of Southern accents. It’s entertaining.

***

Creative: Playwrights: Jones Hope Wooten (Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, Jamie Wooten); director – Claran LaViolette; set design and construction – Roger Bennin; lighting design – Warren Schmidt; costumes – Claran LaViolette; props – Roger Bennin, Claran LaViolette and the cast; soundtrack – Aaron Murphy; stage manager – Roger Bennin; technical director; technical crew – Jake Jacquart, Aaron Murphy

Cast (in order of appearance):

Carlene Travis – Ellen Peronto

Nita Moore – Ann Wolf

Mavis Flowers – Kathy Kowalski

Crystal Hart – Cindy Bradley

Sugar Lee Thompkins – Darcy Gravelle

Bunny Sutherland – Tina Prigge

Bobby Dwayne Dillahunt – J Gravelle

Porter Padgett – Gregg Wolf

Running time: Two hours, 10 minutes

Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. July 30; 7 p.m. July 31; 2 p.m. Aug. 1

Info: (920) 242-6529

***

THE VENUE: Dedicated Oct. 3, 2013, the 35,000-square-foot Franciscan Center for Music Education and Performance at Silver Lake College of the Holy Family consists of two focal interior areas. They are the Bob and Pat Endries Foundation Hall and the Michael and Mimi Ariens Atrium. The 464-seat auditorium is dominated by wood. The stage floor is maple, with small lights running along the front lip. The ceiling above the stage consists of wood panels with a slight outward curve and inset lights. Five rows of flat panels above the hall are from two to eight panels across. The backs of seats are wood-like, with fabric covering of a burgundy matching that of the main stage curtain. The moveable (for concerts) back wall of the stage consists of panels with a slight outward bow. The side walls and a fringe across the top of the proscenium (flat-front) stage are made of a veneer with a kind of mahogany shade stain and, most importantly, a wavy effect. Being surrounded by wood, along with waves, gives the impression of being in a sea of wood. All the wood is for acoustical properties, and the sound of the hall is warm and inviting. The carpeted atrium features a slight arc. A pattern of floor-to-ceiling windows inset in stone-like support sections allows a light aura. The tall wall of the auditorium is painted a shade of sienna. The ceiling is wood, with large beams.

THE PEOPLE: Robert Endries and his wife, Patricia Endries, started a fastener distributorship in the basement of their home in Brillion in 1970. Endries International grew to 70 locations and 450 employees in 2004 and was sold to Ferguson Enterprises in 2005. The Robert & Patricia Endries Family Foundation benefits entities in Brillion and somewhat beyond. For Michael and Mimi Ariens, think of Ariens snow blowers and lawnmowers, with the company that Michael once led based in Brillion. Many area entities benefit from the Ariens Foundation, of which Mimi Ariens is president.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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