The audience at the Richmond Hill Barn Theatre's Saturday-night performance of Christmas Belles - a sequel to Dearly Beloved, which the theatre staged in 2008 - seemed to really want to enjoy this second visit with the eccentric Texans of the Futrelle family. Yet with its dull, predictable punchlines, the first act was filled with polite chuckles, but only peppered with honest laughs.
Their subdued responses were likely not due to lack-of-trying on the part of director John VanDeWoestyne's cast. But Jessie Jones', Nicholas Hope's, and Jamie Wooten's script - about the Futrelles' attempts to put on an annual Christmas pageant in the midst of a pregnancy, a marriage proposal, a jail sentence, and a kidney stone - doesn't really support the actors' jollity until this comedy's characters stage that pageant; the show (within the show), and the backstage antics surrounding it, are the best parts of Christmas Belles, and they don't take place until about a third of the way into Act II.
Richmond Hill's players certainly have a good go at their roles, anyway. Eugenia Giebel is at the top of her game when her character, Miss Geneva Musgrave, names herself as co-director in the pageant's quickly degenerating eleventh hour; Giebel's haughty sense of self-worth is wickedly smile-inducing. So, too, is Susan Philhower's condescending Patsy Price. Almost, but not quite, crossing the line into caricature, Philhower managed to play a hateful character without my hating her. (An on-stage blunder definitely added to her likability: After Philhower lost her grip on a pill bottle - sending it flying into the audience, and eliciting the night's biggest laughs - the actress reclaimed the bottle and took a quick bow before regaining her composure.)
Diane Greenwood overplays Honey Raye Futrelle to great amusement, rather than annoyance. The audience just loved her, as did I, and never more so than when she'd storm off stage on her way back into the Christmas-pageant fray. (Greenwood begins each march with an exaggerated look that's so hysterical, it leaves the audience in fits of laughter well beyond her exit.) My one issue with Greenwood's performance here, and it's a minor one, is her tendency to play to all the seats in Richmond Hill's theatre-in-the-round setting by turning 360 degrees during her longer lines. Other than that, she was the highlight of the night, showcasing her great talent at physical humor.
Nancy Teerlinck, Lorrie Lord, and Valeree Pieper would benefit from the opportunity for similar comedic opportunities. As Rhonda Lynn Lampley, Frankie Futrelle Dubberly and Twink Futrelle, respectively, they are adequately likable in their roles, but don't offer much variety in their performances. Pieper, though, does at least blossom in a couple of scenes when her character is tied to a chair, and she unleashes a crowd-pleasing rage that's almost caveman- (cavewoman-?) like in nature.
Stan Weimer is very funny as Dub Dubberly, making it a shame that the second act leaves him with little to do beyond running across the stage, screaming in pain, as Dub passes his kidney stone. It's entertaining at first, but loses its amusing edge through repetition. Nicholas Charles Waldbusser, through furtive facial expressions, shades his interim pastor Justin Waverly with uncertainty, but I wish Michael Skiles had more to work with in his character, Raynerd Chisum. Skiles is endearing in his subtly dim-witted portrayal, but I detected hints of greater acting ability were he in a role that called for it. And Kady Patterson, too, shouldn't be required to hide her talent. Still, while her Gina Jo Dubberly is simple, Patterson's portrayal of her is not; it's clear that she put forth the effort to shape a full character, creating a more detailed individual than her material would suggest.
In the end, it's a shame that Christmas Belles' script doesn't consistently live up to the Richmond Hill Players' performance of it. VanDoeWoestyne's effort to bring back the fun of the Futrelles is evident, but he's hampered by a play that doesn't really hit its stride until it's more than halfway finished.
For tickets and information, call (309) 944-2244 or visit RHPlayers.com.
Thom White covers entertainment news for WQAD Quad Cities News 8.