Never seen it? How to explain it …
Well, there’s the just-the-facts-ma’am Wiki-shorthand, to wit:
“Designing Women is an American television sitcom created by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason that aired on CBS from September 29, 1986 until May 24, 1993, producing seven seasons and 163 episodes. The series centers on the lives of four women and one man working together at an interior designing firm in Atlanta called Sugarbakers & Associates. It originally starred Dixie Carter and Delta Burke as sisters Julia and Suzanne Sugarbaker, Annie Potts as head designer Mary Jo Shively and Jean Smart as office manager Charlene Stillfield.”
More to the point—particularly for the Zumanity twosome who’ve written and directed the stage parody Re-Designing Women opening at the Onyx Theatre—is that the sitcom alternated dialogue like this …
“I asked this Northern woman, ‘Where are ya’ll from?’ and she said, ‘I’m from a place where we don’t end our sentences with prepositions.’ So I said, ‘OK, where are ya’ll from, bitch?’” … with dialogue like this (deep breath, and stay with us):
“I am sick and tired of being made to feel that if I am not a member of a little family with 2.4 children who goes just to Jerry Falwell’s church and puts their hands over their hearts every morning that I am unreligious, unpatriotic and un-American. Because I’ve got news for you … All liberals are not kooks, any more than all conservatives are fascists. And the last time I checked, God was neither a Democrat nor a Republican. And just for your information, yes, I am a liberal, but I am also a Christian. And I get down on my knees and pray every day—on my own turf, on my own time. One of the things I pray for … is that people with power will get good sense, and that people with good sense will get power … and that the rest of us will be blessed with the patience and the strength to survive the people like you in the meantime!”
My, my, my and fiddle-dee-dee, Miss Scarlett(s). Dixie dynamos, they were—and are again, if you don’t mind that this time around, they have penises.
“I’ve always worked with all-male casts and it just heightens the comedy. We can get away with a little bit more,” says Re-Designing Women playwright Jamie Morris, who milks pop-culture irreverence out of TV/movie parodies. That’s when he’s not busy on other show-biz gigs, such as portraying pleasantly preachy Father Mark of Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding at Bally’s.
“The writing on Designing Women was so crisp. They’re strong women, and gay men identify with strong, opinionated women. And it was groundbreaking with issues like HIV/AIDS that were not talked about back then. You can’t really see them on reruns anymore, so I wanted to bring them back, reintroduce them.”
Fortunately, the puckish parodist who also writes for the sex-tastic Cirque-tacular Zumanity at New York-New York had a ready partner—personally and professionally—in the director of this and all his spoofs: Christopher Kenney, who spends most nights in bawdy mode as Edie, the ribald ringmaster (ring-mistress?) in drag of Zumanity.
“Drag is campy, drag is funny,” says the drag-queen director of his drag-queen cast. “If it was [female performers] in Re-Designing Women, it would probably be fine, but it’s an added twist. We really go for it. We don’t want to be too cheesy or over the top, though. There is a fine line. You want it to be smart, and Jamie writes smart.”
Racking up a résumé of parodies starring men with faux-racks, Morris is also the wickedly warped brain behind The Facts of Life: The Lost Episode, The Silence of the Clams, Gilligan’s Fire Island and Mommie Queerest. (Isn’t a drag queen Joan Crawford a redundancy?)
“It’s movies and TV shows I grew up with and have a special bond with,” says Morris, who played Crawford in Queerest, Mrs. Garrett in Facts and Hannibal Lichter (yes, “Lichter”) in Clams. “You have to love what you parody, and I loved watching Designing Women [when I was] growing up in West Virginia.”
Debuting in Dallas in 2013, Re-Designing Women also played to audiences in San Diego and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, before landing in New York as an off-Broadway oddity. Having just shuttered there, the cast, including Morris in the lead dress—sorry, role—of Julia Sugarbaker has relocated for the Vegas run.
“We get all kinds of audiences, we even get some silver-haired audience members,” Kenney says. “We recently did The Facts of Life: The Lost Episode, which is really dirty, in San Diego. Some people who didn’t know what they were getting into walked out and I’m like, ‘I don’t blame you!’ There are a few naughty jokes, but this one is not dirty. And at the Onyx, people know what they’re getting into. We usually play these fun, alternative theaters, and people who follow Jamie know his reputation.”
In Re-Designing Women—in a plot that marries sitcom sensibilities to reality vulgarities—the sassy guys in gal clothing are struggling to keep their company aloft in a nose-diving economy. Desperate, they pitch a reality show to genre guru Andy Cohen of the Bravo channel and its Real Housewives hausfraus, which turns these Georgia peaches’ sitcom existence—including their ex-con deliveryman and dipsy-doodle pal—into a catty zoo.
“There was a mother and her daughter who came to the show, and I met them afterward,” Morris recalls about the generational dynamic among audiences. “The mother grew up with Designing Women. The daughter had no clue, but when the Andy Cohen character came on, with all the Bravo references, she knew that, so they were schooling each other.”
Even so: “I thought about doing a Real Housewives parody, but as I said, you have to love what you parody—and I hate them so much.”
Dedicated, he says, to remaining true to the characters while also spinning the show in his own style, Morris says he was convinced one night to include a verbatim speech delivered in a memorable episode. Known in shorthand to fans as “the night the lights went out in Georgia,” it’s a tour de force moment for the Julia character, in which she tells off a former beauty queen who had mocked her sister, Suzanne.
“We weren’t going to put that in there,” Kenney says, noting that they changed their minds after Morris hung out at a bar one evening. “That came on and every single person at the bar did it word for word with the TV set. Jamie thought, Oh, my God, I have to add this. Now the audience goes crazy, they just love it.”
On the other end of the spoofy spectrum, they get a lot of mileage out of a little exaggeration, just in the physicality of the characters. “I did not think of Julia Sugarbaker having a certain walk. You think of her as strong and elegant and statuesque, but Jamie started doing this walk and the audience—we had to stop the show, they were screaming,” Kenney says.
“Now he does it every time. And on Facebook, people will write, ‘The walk alone is worth the price of admission.’”
Future farces? “There has been a Bewitched one in my head for years, and The Devil Wears Prada I want to tackle,” Morris says. “But I love the sitcom formula, the dialogue, the fast pace, that 22-minute, three-camera formula that’s been around forever.”
Just my two cents: How about a drag-queen Jerry in the new hit spoof, Seinfeld: They’re Unreal But They’re Still Spectacular?
Pulling off that parody would make Morris the master of this flamboyantly funny domain.
8 p.m. July 9-11, 13, 16-18; 5 p.m. July 12, Onyx Theatre, 953 E. Sahara Ave., $25, 702-732-7225, OnyxTheatre.com.