BWW Reviews: THE DIXIE SWIM CLUB Buoys Spirits at Allenberry Playhouse
It's a heartwarming, maybe even a feel-good, comedy about strong Southern women. Each scene is a different date, a different vignette illustrating the depths of their commitment to each other as friends as time passes by. There's the acerbic one, the professional woman, the bumbler. And illness and tragedy finally enter the mix, though because they're strong, caring Southern women, you know they'll surmount it all. Wait - isn't that STEEL MAGNOLIAS?
Actually, it is STEEL MAGNOLIAS. But it's also the Jessie Jones/Nicholas Hope/Jamie Wooten vehicle, THE DIXIE SWIM CLUB, which is, in essence, STEEL MAGNOLIAS at the Outer Banks. Jones Hope Wooten, as the trio calls themselves, specialize in Southern fried humor, based on their backgrounds as writers on such things as "The Golden Girls" and "Designing Women". What they really specialize in is high-quality knockoffs - of STEEL MAGNOLIAS, of GREATER TUNA, and of other Broadway and off-Broadway hits, with Southern fried humor and strong women. Jones Hope Wooten shows aren't exactly Broadway or Off-Broadway material, but they're pleasant enough, funny, and just flirting with the edge of risqué intermittently - adult enough to keep attention, and clean enough to take your great-aunt or your children.
The DIXIE SWIM CLUB is at Allenberry Playhouse right now with what may just be the strongest small-ensemble cast they have assembled in quite some time. It's difficult to believe that the cast really hasn't worked together previously; only one, Diana Wilde, is an Allenberry veteran. Nonetheless, they have excellent chemistry, and there's little difficulty for the audience to accept that these are women who have known each other since they were on the swim team together as girls.
Jill Taylor Anthony is extremely funny as Jeri Neal, the sister who became... a sister. Despite that, she emerges from the convent every year to meet with her old teammates at the same cottage on the Outer Banks. Shannon Haddock is Sheree, the team captain who has never changed her attitude towards organization and leadership, and who's added inedible health-food cooking to her skills. Dinah, the no-nonsense attorney now living in Atlanta with a martini genetically attached to her hand, is played by Laurie Pascale, from Arkansas. Lexie, collector of husbands and plastic surgeries, is Suzanne Stewart, and Diana Wilde plays Vernadette, the queen of the bizarre. Vernadette's continually surprising ways to injure herself or to bring down the world around her allow Wilde to steal the show in most of the acts, although it's Anthony's Jeri Neal who walks off with it at first. Yet every one of these women has her moment to shine throughout the production -- it's just that Vernadette's concerted refusal to shine, and Jeri Neal's desire to make a major change in her life, are so delightful.
Starting in 1995 and continuing into a future past the present day, the show pursues the changes in the women's lives from one summer vacation reunion to another, through children, relationships, careers, illness, and all of the other ups and downs of the lives of a group of close friends. If your family really is the people who will love you and accept you no matter what, these women are each other's real families, and by the end of the show, they have been for decades. It's not the most original show - it's been done in STEEL MAGNOLIAS, CHURCH BASEMENT LADIES and its sequels, and the like, many times over - but it's a perfectly enjoyable part of the genre, well-performed by a talented group of actors. It may be formulaic, but it's a formula that works when given the right cast.
Aside from some very fine ensemble work, the show also boasts one of the better sets of the past few seasons and some decent sound design. For a show such as this, though, perhaps curtaining the front area of the side walls of the theatre might help with acoustics. But overall, sound at Allenberry has improved considerably over the past couple of seasons, fortunately.
At Allenberry Playhouse through May 11. Call 717-258-3211 or visit www.allenberry.com for tickets.