BWW Review: THE RED VELVET CAKE WAR at the Carrollwood Players

BWW Review: THE RED VELVET CAKE WAR at the Carrollwood Players

"What I want to know is why they call them 'hemorrhoids' and not 'asteroids'?" --a line from THE RED VELVET CAKE WAR

"Do we treat community theatre shows the same way we review professional shows?" That's the question that never seems to escape theatre reviewers. You never hear that of movie critics: "Do you treat independent films the same way you treat Hollywood blockbusters?" I believe everyone agrees that both should be reviewed honestly, despite their varying budgets. But is it any different with community theatres? Although the director is usually paid, the actors are not. These are people in our community who are performing out of love, not for some paycheck. (Many professional actors do it out of love as well, though a paycheck never hurts.)

But shouldn't we review community shows with the same exacting eye that we save for professional productions? Aren't audiences spending their hard-earned money for both types of shows? (I know some community theatres that charge more for tickets than some professional companies do.)

My credo doesn't change, whether a show is community theatre or professional. I must be fair but honest. And sometimes you come across a community theatre show that is so good that it eventually winds up on the Best of the Year lists (1776 at EOT last year was the #7 show I saw all season; all of the other shows in the Top 10 happened to be produced by professional companies).

We have some dynamite community theatres in our area--Eight O'Clock Theatre, M.A.D. Theatre of Tampa, the West Coast Players and the Carrollwood Players. THE RED VELVET CAKE WAR is currently playing at the Carrollwood Players until March 4th. Now, even just with that title alone, you know that this isn't a remake of Antigone. It's country corn pone, so you can leave your Strindberg at bay (to quote The Producers). And no one will ever confuse it with T.S. Eliot's The Cocktail Hour.

THE RED VELVET CAKE WAR by James Wooten, Jessie Jones and Nicholas Hope is sort of a warmed over Greater Tuna played with a full cast. It's fun and funny and doesn't try to cure the common cold. You'll the leave the theatre with no new insights into the human condition, but you will exit knowing you had a good time. We need laughter these days, and THE RED VELVET CAKE WAR is certainly the Southern-fried fluff we need to escape for a couple of hours. The sold-out audience was surely appreciative, oftentimes roaring with laughter.

Gaynelle, Peaches and Jimmy Wyette are three cousins of the Verdeen clan of Sweetgum, Texas, and their worlds are spinning out of control. But Gaynelle's bet with the snide busy-body Lemerle as to whose red velvet cake is the best (hence the title) sets off an uproarious plot that includes everything from a wacky family reunion on the hottest day of July to, yes, a tornado. Nothing is too far out in Sweetgum.

Tamara Klein is fine as Gaynelle, her big eyes and facial reactions quite humorous. And she ingeniously uses a can of Reddi-Wip as a punctuation mark to end her sentences. (I haven't seen someone eat so much Reddi-Wip since my college days.) Ann K. Lehman is wonderfully easy to hate as the villainous Lamerle Verdeen Minshew.

Larry Weglarz's Newt always enters the stage with a bundle of energy; his plights with a missing eye left the audience in stitches. Kym Welch's transformation from stodgy psychiatrist to wild gal is quite funny (even though her German accent was occasionally difficult to understand). And Benjamin Gregory as Purvis Verdeen, who likes to take pictures of dead bodies, knows how to steal a scene.

Best of all is a new face in our area, Tynan Pruitt, who plays Peaches, a mortuary cosmetologist. Pruitt's ease on stage, comic timing and likability are off the charts. And it's always good seeing a fresh face really owning the stage. She reminded me of a combination of Markie Post and Kelly Rippa.

Director Stephen Bielawski certainly knows how to keep a show moving; the pace was good, with rarely a dull moment.

Still, there are issues with this production. Although Shirley Overton's set is workable and appropriate, some of the set pieces (the "Whatley Western Wear" sign, for example) look like they belong in a bottom-tier high school production than in a community theatre show. I know it's only onstage for a short time, but as Stephen Sondheim claims, "God is in the details."

Some of the performances were not up to the others, and many of the accents came and went. Also, there were some minor stumbled lines and enunciation issues. Even more problematic is the lack of noticeable make-up on Daniel Allmond's Aubrey Verdeen, a man nearing ninety. With no white in the hair, Allmond looked like a twenty-something, and the audience was forced to suspend its disbelief just a little bit too much. We never got a sense of a wrinkly old man. (This came across very high school.) Allmond is a fine actor, and I enjoyed his work in Lie, Cheat and Genuflect and enjoy what he did here; the deal just needed to be sealed with the correct make-up (it could not be seen from the back of the house) and white hair-coloring. The actor--and the audience--deserves it.

Also, during set changes, the actors need to stay in character while moving the set, since the audience can still see them. If Aubrey is nearing ninety and needs a walker, then he needs to do that during the scene changes as well. It breaks the illusion to see a healthy young man moving the set and then hunch over when the scene begins.

Although popular in community theatres, THE RED VELVET CAKE WAR is not my favorite script (I can't believe it took three talented people to write it). It comes across like an extended episode of "Hee Haw." It's chock full of old jokes and bad puns, and people doing things that make no apparent sense. Yes, this is cornbread farce, but for it to work correctly, we have to be able to put ourselves in the character's shoes during each awkward situation. Otherwise it just seems to be Three's Company meets Mama's Family. That said, the audience did laugh (and sometimes groan with pleasure) at most of those old jokes and bad puns. (And lines like the above "asteroids" quote really had them reeling.)

But you could do a lot worse than escape to Sweetgum, Texas for a couple of hours of country-bumpkin hilarity. So turn off CNBC, CNN and FOX, then head over to the Carrollwood Players for a much-needed goofy good time. You won't be sorry.

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