Signature’s holiday musical with bells on

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Michael Toscano

The locally written, funny-but-touching, holiday musical Silver Belles, playing at Signature Theatre through the end of the year, stars (left to right): Peggy Yates (Ruth Ann), Nova Y. Payton (Gloria), Dan Manning (Earl), Donna Migliaccio (Oralene), Ilona Dulaski (Berneice), and Naomi Jacobson (Bo Jack).
Photo by Christopher Mueller

The promotional material for Silver Belles, onstage at Signature Theatre through Christmas Eve, describes this world premiere production as “Golden Girls meets Designing Women with a heaping helping of well-known Christmas tunes and clever new ditties.”

Well, that’s it. My work is pretty much done here, and I’ve got Christmas shopping to do, so I’ll run along...

Basically, the Signature PR blurb tells you what you really need to know. But I did take four or five pages of notes. So let me try it my way: Silver Belles is a Christmas-themed show, much in the same way “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” is a Christmas carol. But with feeling.

Putting on a show

The Silver Belles are the local drama group — in more ways than one — in Silver, Tennessee. They’re known for their annual Christmas show that raises money to give the orphaned kids at the county home a real Christmas.

Their leader is the formidable Oralene, played by a now-resplendently blonde Donna Migliaccio — a Signature stalwart who can never do any wrong onstage.

Problem is, Oralene just got herself killed by lightning. That leaves her loving husband Earl, played with characteristic shades of personality and temperament by Dan Manning, to try to write the songs they used to create together. He did the music; she provided lyrics.

Now he’s just a chord with a few notes missing, as the other belles flutter around him, trying to ply him with food and comfort over his loss. Behind the jokes and campy performances, there’s a clear-eyed look at what happens when a community loses the integral piece that holds it together.

As the Belles flounder, and this year’s show looks like it might not happen, Oralene’s indomitable spirit comes back into their midst, unbeknownst to all of them, to save the show — and Earl.

And, as it turns out, she comes back to learn something about each of the Belles (and herself) that she did not know before. So it’s funny and it’s poignant, often at the very same time. And that’s hard to do. You just try it.

Written by locals

One of the cool things about the show is that it’s homegrown at Signature, from local playwright Allyson Currin and Signature collaborator Matt Conner (music), who teamed up with frequent performer Stephen Gregory Smith (lyrics).

Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer directs, and he seems to have shaped his cast into a tight ensemble while letting their inner belles emerge in all their eccentricities. The characters almost seem written just for these performers.

There’s Naomi Jacobsen as Bo Jack, the scrappy belle who rings a little bit different. Ilona Dulaski is Berneice, the slightly addled taxidermist (“Your animals will be loved to death”), who loves her inanimate animal pals, maybe a bit too much, and always brings the Tums along with her hot dishes.

Peggy Yates is still the same baton twirler she always was, sparkly and smiling as homemaker Ruth Ann. Nova Y. Payton is the lusty Gloria, whose sweetly compelling voice you may remember from Signature’s Dreamgirls. In fact, Conner and Smith have given her an “11 o’clock number” (a big, show-stopping song) reminiscent of Dreamgirls that plays early in the show at about 8:40.

Come to think of it, Migliaccio gets an “11 o’clock number” even earlier than that, at only three songs in. And when Payton and Migliaccio team up for a song about mistletoe, you’ll be transported far beyond the usual winter wonderland.

The songwriters incorporate quite a few familiar themes (even a little Dave Brubeck, for some reason), and appropriate some traditional Christmas melodies into a pleasant mélange. There’s mistletoe and moonshine and Christmas cookies in the songs.

But it all wouldn’t work as well as it does without some real heart. You’ll first notice it in Manning’s work as broken-hearted Earl. Manning always plays it straight, channeling up some Andy Griffith (serious Andy, not broad, grinning Andy), and grounding his character in sentiment despite the broadly drawn characters around him. As somebody here says about the ice cream on the cake, “it cuts the sweet.”

Laughter and tears

This is not a show of quiet chuckles. It’s a show that draws lots of snorts and hoots. But it also generates a bit o’ mist in the eyes.

As Oralene reaches across the great divide to her friends and her husband — and sees them without their public facades — she learns more about them then she did while physically among them. The duet between Oralene and Earl, a gently country ballad called “I Don’t Know What to Say,” is strong enough to stand alone as a song.

Silver Belles winds up with the Christmas show having abandoned the title “A Christian Christmas for Christ” in favor of “When the Gettin’ is Good,” and it goes out with a couple of high energy ensemble numbers.

But don’t worry: nobody’s religion is made fun of. The show just “cuts the sweet” that may get too much every season. Silver Belles is a ring-a-ding show.

Silver Belles continues through Dec. 31 at Signature Theatre’s ARK Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., in Arlington, Va.

Performances are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m., Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. There are a noon matinee and a 5 p.m. performance on Saturday, Dec. 24, and 4 and 8 p.m. performances on Saturday, Dec. 3.

Discussion nights are Tuesday and Wednesday, Dec. 6 and Dec. 7 at 7:30 p.m. Pride night is Friday, Dec. 9 at 8 p.m. There are open-captioned performances Sunday Dec. 11, at 2 p.m. and Tuesday, Dec. 13 at 7:30 p.m.

Ticket prices range from $40 to $99 and may be purchased online at www.signature-theatre.org, by calling Ticketmaster at (703) 573-SEAT, or by visiting the box office during business hours, weekdays 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and weekends from noon to 6 p.m.

A limited number of $40 tickets (typically at the sides and rear) are available for every performance at Signature — while supplies last. No promo code is needed.

The theater is accessible for people with disabilities, and it is recommended that special seating needs be mentioned when tickets are purchased. Free listening devices are available. Free parking is available in nearby public garages.

For general information, contact Signature at (703) 820-9771 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.