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Preview: Redesigning Women

Will Coviello on the drag version of the '80s sitcom -- starring Ricky Graham and Varla Jean Merman



When the TV sitcom Designing Women debuted in 1986, it found its signature device in just the second episode: A rant by the character Julia Sugarbaker — now immortalized on YouTube under the title "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia."

  In the episode about beauty pageants, Julia (Dixie Carter) doesn't like the way a pageant organizer belittles her sister Suzanne (Delta Burke). She corners the woman and launches into an epic tirade, unaware Suzanne overhears most of it.

  "You probably didn't know that Suzanne was the only contestant in Georgia pageant history to sweep every category except congeniality," Julia begins. "That is not something women in my family aspire to anyway."

  As her tone sharpens and she backs the woman into a corner, Julia continues with a heroic account of her sister's talents.

  "She didn't just twirl a baton; that baton was on fire. When she threw that baton into the air, it flew farther, faster, higher than any baton had flown before, hitting a transformer and showering the darkened arena with sparks. And when it did finally come down, my sister caught that baton and 12,000 people jumped to their feet for 16-and-one-half minutes of thunderous ovation as flames lit her tear-stained face. ... And that was the night the lights went out in Georgia."

  It's a monologue Ricky Graham revives in the sendup Redesigning Women, opening at Mid-City Theatre May 23 and starring Graham as Julia, Varla Jean Merman (aka Jeffery Roberson) as the naïve Charlene Stillfield, Brian Peterson as the rich and self-centered Suzanne (played by Delta Burke in the original), and Jack Long as the down-to-earth divorcee Mary Jo Shively.

  "The beauty pageant episode just goes on and on," Roberson says. "There's a beautiful scene where Suzanne realizes that's all she was. She was put on Earth to be a beauty pageant queen. There's no other reason. In the episode, they never say, 'No, you have other talents.' They just say, 'Yup, that was it.'"

  Graham says the impetus to do Redesigning Women came at the end of a run of a parody of The Golden Girls, starring several of the same players. Graham thought Peterson would be perfect as Burke.

  "If you had asked my 16-year-old self if I would grow up to play (Burke), my head would have exploded," Peterson says with a laugh. "She was my favorite character on the show. ... Everybody loved (Burke) and her silly character."

  Graham wanted to do Julia's rants, and Roberson wanted to be Charlene ("She's not that bright, so she has all the best lines," Robeson says).

  Designing Women, which aired from 1986 to 1993, featured four women running an interior design firm in Atlanta, and it modeled a sort of genteel but strong-willed Southern feminism, best exemplified by Julia's rants. She was a forceful businesswoman surrounded by her sister Suzanne, the former beauty queen, and office manager Charlene and Mary Jo. Unlike The Golden Girls, which was a stream of one-liners, Designing Women was character-driven and often dipped into social issues, but Graham and company are focusing on humorous elements.

  "It's Julia's rants," Graham says. "Her sister Charlene's stupidity and her outfits. Mary Jo's social barnstorming and her outfits. Suzanne's self-centeredness, her two-dimensionality and her outfits."

  To put together the parody, they collected scripts from the early years of the show and did some field research. Some French Quarter bars run clips from the show in between music videos.

  "Some bars play disco videos," Graham says. "And then a clip of Julia will come on and everyone in the bar will rant along with her."

  They noted some of the more popular rants, and then they focused on the final element: 1980s outfits.

  "Every thrift store we went to had episode after episode of Designing Women clothes," Graham says. "We could have costumed the entire series. ... We went on a Tuesday — OK, great, no one will be there — we went to the Salvation Army on Jefferson Highway, and there was a half-price sale. So it was packed with New Orleans women of every social strata, and here are these guys. Some people completely ignored us. And some people were giving us the stink eye, because either it was inappropriate or we were taking the outfits they wanted."

  They're running Redesigning Women just before other projects start. Graham will star in Monty Python's Spamalot at Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts in June. Varla will preview a new show May 29 at Cafe Istanbul before performing it in Provincetown, Mass., later this summer. Based on fairy tales, it's tentatively titled Twice Upon a Mattress, or When Will My Prince Come.

  Is the group planning another parody of an all-woman show?

  "I don't know," Roberson says. "Maybe Sex and the City."

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