BWW Review: SASSY MAMAS Seduce at Ensemble Theatre
Imagine if Condoleezza Rice was cast as the lead in SEX AND THE CITY, and you'd be close to the concept of SASSY MAMAS which opens the Ensemble Theatre's 40th season.
The comedy is all about three successful single women of a certain age who decide to flip the script of what is expected of them. A widower, a divorcee, and a "permanently single" political figure all end up going for younger guys in this hilarious look at what pop culture lovingly calls "cougars." It feels familiar, but it also brings something touching and new to the table. Audiences should roar with laughter and fall in love with these ladies.
SASSY MAMAS is the regional premiere of a work by Houstonian playwright Celeste Bedford Walker. It's a perfect choice to kick off the theatre's fortieth year celebration since she was around at the start when the Ensemble was on Tuam under the direction of founder George Hawkins. He told her back in the day that despite the fact she didn't want to act there would "always be a place for her." Walker's latest play proves why her work has been a staple with the company. She knows what the Ensemble audiences want, and she delivers it with passion and glee. Her script pays homage to works like SEX AND THE CITY, 50 SHADES OF GREY, and HOW STELLA GOT HER GROOVE BACK, but takes them in new directions for her story.
We meet three ladies at the top of the show, and know they are heading towards comedic romantic entanglements. Wilhemina Sorenson (Detria Ward) is the head of security for the President and someone who has never married nor even considered it. She meets a young ex football player turned journalist named Wes Washington (Steve Scott) and suddenly she's questioning her choice to keep men only as arm candy. Jo Billie Massey (Alice M. Gatling) is a hospital administrator who has recently lost her husband, but decides it is time for kinky fun. She seeks a man willing to enter into a contract to be a submissive, and she finds a willing subject in Ladonte (Kedrick Brown). There is also Mary Wooten (Michele Harrell) who has just been left by her husband for a woman half his age. She is considering entering a marriage of convenience with a lonely wealthy classmate, but then along comes a young gardener named Colby (Roc Living). It all gets messy fast, but the women somehow manage to find a way to "live, love, and shine" no matter what they face.
The nice thing about Celeste Bedford Walker's script is we believe in these three women, and we love them by the end. Where SEX AND THE CITY and 50 SHADES OF GREY set out to shock us through explicit content, Walker is aiming more to look at what drives a woman in romance outside of the predictable bedroom antics. As funny as the whole thing is, we never don't care about feelings and happiness. There is more than a touch of honest drama and things to chew on, but director Eileen J. Morris wisely keeps the comedy front and center to keep it buoyant and fresh. She is a perfect match for the script. Together playwright and director find the right balance of hearty laughs and moments of understanding that make this more than just a fluffy romantic comedy.
All three female leads have great comic timing, and they work extremely well off each other. They earn the SASSY MAMAS title, and it's a hoot to watch them woo young dudes and dance around to Rick James and Prince songs. Alice M Gatling is probably the sassiest of them all, and she gets to be the voice and narrator of the play as her character is writing a book about the three friends. She never made me feel like any moment was canned, and she was so charming that by the end I was ready to date her if given a chance. She's warm, funny, and daring. Detria Ward takes on the stiff head of national security and gives her a quirky grace and vulnerability that spikes through when needed. Michele Harrell brings a ton of physical comedy know how and builds a character who sincerely feels conflicted between stability and adventure.
The guys in the cast get a unique opportunity to be eye candy and the love interests. They are game to be objectified, and the trio are funny and handsome. Kedrick Brown as Ladonte has the best comic chops, and looks pretty impressive in a loincloth in the play's funniest sequence. Steve Scott and Roc Living are both adorable and easy to believe any lady would fall hard and fast when courted by them.
The tech team supports the comedic tone. Adrian Washington's sound design provides constant underscore and amps up the laughter with well placed vintage songs at the right moments. Shirley Whitmore had me giggling with her elaborate church hats and outlandish gowns that she appropriately uses to punctuate gags. Set and lights are high quality, and overall there is much to admire.
For forty years now the Ensemble Theatre has proven to be one of Houston's best local venues, and SASSY MAMAS continues the tradition. It's a hysterical look at three women who go after younger men with no apology. It's no less than THREE Stellas getting their grooves on, and it manages to be as smart as it is funny. This is a tight script, an excellent cast, and a handsome production that Houston should be proud of. This what the Ensemble does best - entertains and informs.
SASSY MAMAS runs through October 16th at The Ensemble Theatre located at 3535 Main Street. Tickets can be purchased through their website at www.EnsembleHouston.com or by calling their box office at (713) 520-0055.
Photo courtesy of The Ensemble Theatre