Cortland Repertory Theatre opens its summer season with Always a Bridesmaid, which is an, um, unpretentious comedy. That’s another way of saying it is unashamed, which is not the same thing as shameless.
It makes no excuse for being a broad comedy about six broads at five different weddings. It fesses up right away about being a sitcom because one of its three authors was once a scribe for The Golden Girls. There’s not a bit of defensiveness about being derivative or recycling gags that have been knocking around the Internet and can be traced to black-and-white TV and earlier. Without qualms it offers up as original Mark Twain’s 130-year-old wheezer, “Politicians like diapers should be changed often – and for the same reason.” This is a show that’s breaking its back to make you smile, not to contemplate the human condition.
Bridesmaid is the best known of about 15 stage comedies by a productive trio who have been sweeping the Southland like kudzu. Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten worked widely in all media before forging their fantastically successful operation. Their aim was never Broadway or even off-Broadway. JoHoWo (the friendly corporate nickname) comedies have opened in lots of regional, community and dinner theaters, with 3,500 productions in the United States, and 20,000 worldwide.
The title inverts the pathos in the American adage, Always a bridesmaid, implying closeness to the main attraction at a wedding without achieving top billing one’s self. Here the four main characters are or will get married, but they made a pledge in high school to be bridesmaids for each other’s weddings, come what may. Late in the action comes the confession that they all had hard times getting dates then, and the vow had a certainly wistfulness to it.
Although JoHoWo evidently studied Jack Heifner’s Vanities and Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias before getting started, they appear to owe something to Jeanie Linders’ Menopause: The Musical. Each of the four main characters is essentially a platform for different kinds of jokes. Much as we are reminded of their binding sisterhood, it’s the differences and the friction between the four that keeps the juices flowing.
Only sweet-tempered Libby Ruth (Barbara Bayes) is a securely married stay-at-home, who quotes her husband’s put-downs. Only one is not married at the beginning of the action, the mannish-sounding Charlie (Wendy Bagger), who espouses something like Blue State values (ecology, possibly feminism). Only one emigrated from the North, tall Deedra (single-named Fleece), now a judge. And only one goes through multiple marriages, the manic Monette (Lisa Wright-Mathews), owner of Virginia’s biggest music hall and a shorter edition of big-haired Dolly Parton.
Comic rewards, alas, are not evenly distributed. Monette’s native outrageousness gains her some of the better lines: “Never do anything you’d be embarrassed to explain to the paramedics.” But Wright-Mathews’ fatal tendency to mug just as she gets to the punch lines flattens many of her gifts.
Instead, it’s the two less-favored bridesmaids who keep connecting with their dialogue. Bayes’ Libby Ruth has far more snark than emptiness in her pretty little head, while Bagger’s Charlie scores repeatedly with middling material, like a last-chance nuptial with a bug exterminator.
Bert Bernardi, Cortland Repertory’s go-to director for comedy, takes some welcome liberties with JoHoWo’s conception. Even though the action take place in the probably once-segregated Laurelton Oaks, 20 miles northeast of Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, Bernardi casts an irrepressible black woman, Debra Thais Evans, as the manager Sedalia. Evans, fondly remembered as Mama Morton in Cortland Repertory’s Chicago (2011) and the Redhouse’s The Color Purple (2014), supplies gilded settings for JoHoWo zircons.
Appearing on the set independently of the five is bride-to-be Kari (Hannah Zilber), who speaks nervously of the entire enterprise. Logistically, Kari is there to provide cover for the others to make the many costume changes, but she also restores some of the joyful anticipation for a wedding that will take place after the curtain.
Speaking of costumes, Jimmy Johansmeyer’s duds for Always a Bridesmaid are the most reliable laugh-getters in this production, especially when the girls are decked out in the worst bridesmaid’s dresses ever.
Always a Bridesmaid is all Southern sweetness. Think of washing down a pecan log with a pitcher of heavily sweetened lemonade.