February 20, 2009

The joys of maturity

by Greg Boyle

The New Theatre Restaurant in Overland Park is one of the best deals in town. For the price of a dinner at one of the high-end restaurants around town, you get an excellent, all-you-can eat dinner plus an evening of live entertainment. In these economic times, that’s nothing to sneeze at.

Joyce DeWitt in the New Theatre’s production of Hats

Hats, their latest offering, features Joyce DeWitt, of Three’s Company fame, in a musical tribute to women of a certain age. Her character is turning 50, and is suffering angst over reaching that milestone. The show is a paean to the glories of getting older, sung by a chorus of women who are all members of The Red Hat Club. We’ve probably all seen gatherings of these scarlet-chapeaus’ women at some time or place. They always seem to be enjoying being dressed up in costumes, and having fun wherever they find themselves at the moment. That’s the key to the story.

DeWitt still appears as youthful, vibrant and trim as when she delighted television audiences from 1977-84. (I always liked her character better than Chrissy!) Her comic timing hasn’t slipped either. Maybe eight years of playing second/third banana taught her how to listen on stage, because she gets plenty of opportunity in this production and her attention never wanders. When she gets her chances, DeWitt displays the mugging, little girl charm that provided such a balance to the risqué (for that era) sexuality of the other characters in Three’s Company. DeWitt can still charm an audience, and she sings well too.

The six ladies in the supporting cast do a wonderful job of carrying the evening. The plot unfolds as each tells her tale of how she reached a point in life where she needed a change. Divorce, widowhood, empty nest syndrome — all were subjects of true-to-life monologues, filled with anecdotes and punch lines that had the women in the audience nodding and guffawing in agreement.

What keeps this play from being Menopause the Musical redux is the catchy original music provided by a host of composers and lyricists, one of who is Kathy Lee Gifford. Each lady gets a signature tune and several are memorable enough to hum on the way home. Karen Herrington starts it off with a salsa-flavored tune about the “Five Stages of Life”. Leading a small chorus line of dancers, her zaftig Latina is jiggly and delightful.

Becky Barta stops just short of channeling Patsy Cline with a terrific rendition of “The Older the Fiddle, the Sweeter the Tune”. Debra Bluford gives us her trademark comic vocalizing on “Isn’t It Quiet?” The song lyrics and delivery are a fun contrast to her ebullient persona. The showstopper, though, is delivered by Barbara D. Mills. She closes the first act and opens the second with the roof-raising gospel blues number, “My Oven Is Still Hot”. You believe her.

Cathy Barnett gives another fine comedic performance. Whether she is truly fifty years old or not, she can still really move. In the dance numbers, she’s the one your eyes are drawn to. Her songs weren’t as memorable, but it was the writing, not her delivery.

Marilynn Bogetich plays DeWitt’s mother, and her finest moments are comedic. She delivers the most off-the-wall punch lines, and her drinking scene with Bluford is like watching an old Dean Martin show.

The New Dinner Theatre bills Hats as a comedy with music, but that isn’t a good description. The script, by Anthony Dodge and Marcia Milgrom Dodge, plays mostly like a comedic infomercial for the Red Hat Club. In fact, the rights to the show are owned by the aforementioned club. It felt as though this should be a performance at one of their conventions, rather than a traveling show on the dinner theatre circuit. Sometimes it felt like an Afterschool Special, since Joyce DeWitt has most of her conversations with a narrator who is a puppet (provided in outstanding form here by the Paul Messner Puppets).

All things considered, because of the excellent music and performances, Hats is a very enjoyable evening. However, my table partner observed one woman in the lobby celebrating her 50th birthday by crying. She was an aberration. Besides that one unhappy patron, everyone else in the audience seemed to get the message that 50-year-old girls just wanna have fun.

The New Theatre Restaurant, located in Overland Park, will be presenting Hats through April 12. For reservations, call the box office at 913-649-7469.

Greg Boyle can be contacted at


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