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Della's Diner - The First Episode, by Tom Edwards
Holiday Turkey
Wednesday, November 16, 2005
1.0
Way back in the fall of 1979, Atlanta theatergoers were flocking in record numbers to Showcase Cabaret at Ansley Mall to catch a quirky, light-hearted, and side-splittingly funny little "musical soap opera" by Atlantan Tom Edwards about the dark side of Morning Glory Mountain, Tennessee. Patrons had heard about it around the water cooler, read about it in CL or the AJC. For weeks on end, the Atlanta arts community was abuzz with excitement over one of the best comedic casts ever to assemble on one stage and one of the most joyously entertaining shows it had ever been privileged to see.

I was one of the thousands who laughed until they were apoplectic at the hilarious histrionics of Megan McFarland as Della, Nancy Jane Clay as Ramona, Gordon Paddison as Ronnie Frank and other fabulous homegrown talent. Under musical director Jim Carnahan's magic wand, a cast of genuine triple threats acted, sang, and danced their way into Atlanta theater history books.

Sadly, I witnessed another brand of history being made last Saturday night at Onstage Atlanta. In what was one of the worst community-theater productions I have ever sat through in this town, director Vincent Randall and his shockingly miscast (with a couple of notable exceptions) bunch of actors maim Edwards' homespun treasure and charge us money to watch them do it.

Cheri Kennelley as Della tries her best to meet acting challenges and overcome directorial problems, as does Kristine Lynch, who plays Della's best friend Connie Sue Day. But that's the problem--just about everyone tries too hard. Consequently, most characters seem forced, stylized, and none too real. Kennelley mugs ceaselessly and, unfortunately, chooses an accent that sounds more like Tara proper than Tennessee Pride. In her stilted performance, she loses touch with our matriarch's heart and drive, although thankfully and to her credit, she clings to Della's simple joy at just being alive. Lynch shouts her lines at the audience as if she's in a Maxie Price Labor Day Sell-a-thon spot and walks as if she has a couple of bees in her bustier. Her deportment is spastic, her delivery is harsh, and she never finds Connie Sue's softer side. As portrayed by Lynch, Connie Sue's oh-so-hard edge is simply obnoxious and dilutes the charm of her "Beauty on a Budget" pitch and other potentially priceless bits.

The men are more at ease on stage. Pedro Alvarado may not be everyone's physical vision of Ricky Jim, but he displays a certain endearing innocence and comic confusion that make his characterization work. As serial paramour Ronnie Frank, Chad Tindale seems suitably detached and ape-like (in one of the funniest bits of the show, he chows down on a sandwich during a fervent group prayer). And I wonder if that was the remote he had shoved down the front of his pants? Finally, rotund Jerome Fulford imbues Preacher Larry with a good heart and nimble gait.

Director Vincent Randall never manages to keep the production moving or to squeeze much sweetness or carefree happiness out of Edwards' tried-and-true material. In fact, each time the cast shuffles over to the jukebox to "punch another one in," one can hear patrons shifting in their seats and faintly groaning.

Speaking of pace, music director Jessica Chancey's keyboardist and percussionist are always one step behind the vocals, which range from decent to very good (Kennelley, Alvarado, and Fulford display the show's most notable vocal talents). And irritatingly enough, there seem to be as many fumbled arpegios as botched lines in this production.

The strongest piece of the show is the brilliant Stacy Sheets, who makes Della's daughter Ramona so much more than a whiny, one-note slut and makes me feel better about the forty bucks my girlfriend and I spent on this flabbergasting flop. The most watchable actor on stage, Sheets never lets the audience down: she's totally committed and connected to everything and everyone each and every moment, which would be a difficult task when few others are. Sheets is indeed a performer to watch, not only in community theater but professional acting circles as well, if she aspires to them.

Besides Sheets, the best thing about this excruciatingly shrill, heartless, and high-schoolish attempt at a theatrical cult classic is that it will be over pretty soon. If Tom Edwards were dead, he'd be doing figure-eights in his tomb. Come to think of it, if Edwards saw this production, it just might kill him.

James P. Spencer

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