It’s the cult musical that (almost) nobody in town has heard of. Tom Edwards’ Della’s Diner: Blue Plate Special
opened in Atlanta in 1978 and has been running continuously somewhere
in the former states of the Confederacy ever since. Fifteen years ago
Maureen Harrington, one of Syracuse’s favorites, played the lead for
three months in a sold-out Alabama production. Harrington now directs
the Salt City premiere of Della’s Diner for Appleseed Productions at the Atonement Lutheran Church, 116 W. Glen Ave.
Greasy spooning: Clockwise from bottom left,
Tammy Lynn Wilkinson (wearing the hat), Darian Sundberg, Donnie
Williams, Tamaralee Shutt, Stephfond Brunson, Karis Wiggins and J.
Brazill in Appleseed’s Della’s Diner: Blue Plate Special.
Some Southern products, like apple pan dowdy and Stuckey’s Pecan Logs, do not travel well. Others, like Always, Patsy Cline, are
embraced in Yankeeland. Harrington is counting on audiences voting for
the second. As it turns out, a Patsy Cline signature song, “Crazy,”
shows up in Della’s Diner. And so do a lot of other things, from false eyelashes to brain surgery.
The show is self-billed as a country
music soap opera done karaoke style. A young man in a headset, the TV
studio stage manager (Donnie Williams), warms up the audience before
the curtain and appears to be in charge of the flashing “Applause”
sign. An offstage baritone (Calvin Wilcox), providing the thunderous
offstage narration, asks the kind of narrative questions found on
old-fashioned radio serials: “Who is Joey’s real daddy? Will Ronnie
Frank and Ramona go through with their D-I-V-O-R-C-E ?” Red
lights left and right tell us when we’re “On Air,” and upstage an arm
keeps throwing snowflakes against a closed window to remind us it’s
The diner of the title belongs to a
scrappy blonde named Della Juracko (Karis Wiggins) somewhere in rural
Tennessee. At the beginning of the action she hides some important
papers behind a portrait of a double-chinned older Elvis. Eventually,
those papers will shed light on Della’s relationship with her (perhaps)
stepdaughter, the explosive brunette Ramona Juracko (Tammy Lynn
Wilkinson). After three years married to a coal miner from West
Virginia, Ronnie Frank Flaugher (Darian Sundberg), the two are
contemplating divorce, a question that keeps coming to the forefront
for two hours.
Also coming through the snow to the
diner is a burly young man of changing identity, Ricky Jim Robinson (J.
Brazill), and a tall, willowy clergyman in a flowing black wig,
Preacher Larry Finney (Stephfond Brunson). Weaving in and out of the
action is the big-hair queen Connie Sue Day (Tamaralee Shutt),
sometimes as a commercial announcement for the soap opera and sometimes
as part of the action.
Southern humor’s self-mockery is unique among American regions. Consider the 2006 Will Ferrell movie Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby that
played both to people who love and who loathe NASCAR. Italians and Jews
may love to make gags turning on ignorant views of themselves, but you
can’t imagine a comedy set in San Francisco, Boston or New York City
taking this approach.
In teasing Southern diner culture Della’s is five years ahead of Jim Wann’s Pump Boys and Dinettes,
a tighter show with all-original music. And it anticipates by nearly a
decade the linking of Southern women with too much time, such as the
beauty parlor found in Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias. In contrast, Della’s Diner continues
to be performed more often in the South because of its wilder, looser
structure, suggestions of improv humor and golden-oldie country hits.
Karis Wiggins, one of the area’s most admired dramatic actresses (Frozen, Agnes of God),
gives us a different side of herself as trailer-trash maven Della.
She’s just as twangy as the script calls for in some of the standards,
like Donna Fargo’s “Happiest Girl in the Whole USA” and Eddy Arnold’s
“Make The World Go Away.” But in an abrupt change of pace in the second
act she achieves the best moment of the evening by throwing away
karaoke and low comedy for the absolutely riveting “I’m So Lonesome I
Could Cry,” the Hank Williams classic. It almost feels as though she
was in the show primarily for that plangent moment.
Tamaralee Shutt, on the other hand, is well established in both comedies and musicals and once appeared in Pump Boys. Connie
Sue’s running gag here turns on tacky sub-Parton big-hair blonde wigs
and gaudy gowns, new ones for each scene, that would be sure to deny
her entrance to the Skaneateles Country Club. Shutt and costumer Debbie
Ritchey surely had a ball trying these on. Her “Stand By Your Man” is
white-girl soul music, and the second act’s duet with Della, “Hey Good
Lookin,’” a cascade of flirtatiousness.
J. Brazill, remembered fondly for his One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
last winter, can be counted with the necessary surprises. After two
numbers in the first act, he navigates a series of impossible changes
of character that reveal some completely unsuspected secrets he’s been
carrying. It’s like a reverse Superman whereby pulling off his shirt he
must become a different person with a new body set. He’s the only
performer this year to get mileage from tweaking his bare and hairless
Longtime dancer Stephfond Brunson moves
into new territory as Preacher Larry, the sweet-talking man of the
cloth. The role was not written for an actor of color, but Brunson
makes his casting more plausible by delivering the gospel tune “This
Little Light of Mine” as a hand-clapping spiritual. As Della’s choreographer he favors the broadly comic, as in signing the spelling of D-I-V-O-R-C-E rather than giving us warmed-over Bob Fosse.
There are two newcomers to the cast,
Tammy Lynn Wilkinson from Oswego as perhaps daughter Ramona and Darian
Sundberg as her husband Ronnie Frank. Both stop the show with their
numbers, ”These Boots Were Made for Walking,” “Sixteen Tons” and “Take
This Job and Shove It,” despite being some of the most familiar music
of the evening.
Even though the words in the show keep
telling us the diner is in impoverished rural Tennessee, architect
Navroz Dabu’s art deco set is gorgeous; eight people built, painted and
decorated it. The chromium chairs look like those in the old Hotel
Syracuse. Della should revel in the luxury.
This production runs through Dec. 19. See Times Table for information.