If you're looking for something silly and unsentimental to help you get through the holidays — rejoice. Signature Theatre is producing a lighthearted new mini-musical that is 50 percent absurdity and 50 percent music and dance. A world premiere, Silver Belles is written by three D.C. locals: Allyson Currin (book writer); Matt Conner (music); and Stephen Gregory Smith with Connor (lyrics).
The plot of Silver Belles is wafer thin. Four women of a certain age in the small town of Sylva Ridge, Tennessee are mourning the death of their colleague, Oralene, who was the director of their Christmas pageant. Determined to keep the pageant alive, since its proceeds go to help the parentless children of Sylva Ridge, the four remaining singers decide to mine their talents to put together a show in the four weeks they have until Christmas.
Oralene, who first appears in her coffin looking very dead, decides to join her friends, climbing out of the coffin and joining in the fun. There is no explanation for her post-mortem presence and no one notices her lusty singing. They look right past her. The basic craziness of the situation would make the play dramatically unsound, except that it's clear that no aspect of life in this production is supposed to be reasonable.
Bo Jack runs a radio station, advertising things that people want to get rid of by selling or swapping. Bo is all heart. When Oralene's husband, Earl, in a fit of despair, wants to sell the guitar he and Oralene used to write songs with, Bo cleverly gives him some of Oralene's moonshine and talks him out of the sale in the song "Moonshine."
All the women are clever in one way or another. When they realize that they don't have anywhere near enough money to put on the pageant, Ruth Ann reaches back to when she was much younger and used to raise money by baking cookies. With Oralene's help, Ruth Ann remembers the cookie recipe, sings "Christmas Cookies" with Oralene, and makes some delicious treats that raise a lot of cash.
Gloria also knows how to raise money — by carrying around a ball of mistletoe and selling kisses for one dollar apiece. She and Oralene sing "Mistletoe," one of the funniest numbers in the musical. Berneice happens to know a lot about taxidermy and the art of stuffing animals, which she explains in "The Friendly Beasts." She gathers together many departed, stuffed animals in a makeshift manger and thus saves the money the women would have spent on real animals.
All the cast members have strong voices and the numbers they sing together are fabulous. Nova Y. Payton as Gloria, Peggy Yates as Ruth Ann, and Donna Migliaccio as Oralene are particularly outstanding. Naomi Jacobson creates the perfect image of a tough little lady, determined to survive on her own. Ilona Dulaski creates a hilarious portrait of a woman who cares as much about dead animals as she does live ones. Dan Manning gives a strong performance as Earl, the heartbroken widower.
Connor uses a variety of musical styles, from rock to jazz to Christmas carols, to get his various points across. Karma Camp's sensational choreography includes everything from vaudeville to classic Broadway moves. Pianist Jacob Kidder sits and plays stage right but never interferes with the action.
Eric Schaeffer directs everything in this musical with an upbeat touch. The pacing is quick and steady, but not aggressive. The humor is down-home, but not corny.
James Kronzer's scenic design shows snow-covered fir trees out the windows of the funeral home where Oralene's coffin has been placed. The small stage also serves as Earl's home, where he is trying to write a song for the pageant.
Kathleen Geldard's costumes are standard Tennessee homemakers' outfits until the final scene, where Geldard's imagination runs riot for the Christmas pageant, including red velvet, white fur, red spangled shoes, and more.
But to understand what comprises this very special pageant and how it impacts the inhabitants of Sylva Ridge, you need to get to Signature Theatre and see for yourself.