REVIEW: All Out War, Sweet Laughs in Mill Town Players’ ‘Red Velvet Cake’ Comedy

Libby Riggins and Dona Shiflette in The Red Velvet Cake War. Photo by Escobar Photography, LLC

BY SANDY STAGGS
DRAMA CRITIC

Add red food coloring, cocoa, a fifth of Kahlua, and a dynamite cast to your cake recipe, bake at 350 degrees about 90 hilarious minutes and you have The Red Velvet Cake War, the Mill Town Players’ 2021-2022 season opener and southern fried comedy with all the fixins’ for a dysfunctional family reunion.

From the successful trio of Southern playwrights Jessie JONES, Nicholas HOPE and Jamie WOOTEN with no fewer than five productions such as The Dixie Swim Club, Savannah Sipping Society and The Hallelujah Girls also on Upstate stages within a four month period, this popular entry features an all-star cast of MTP staple performers as three cousins who hijack the hi jinx at the annual Verdeen family gathering.

Libby Riggins is the blonde Gaynelle Verdeen Bodeen who is up on charges of mowing down her ex and his new wife; Cindy Mixon is the just-on-the-market ginger Peaches Verdeen Belrose; and Shannon Faulkner is brunette tomboy Jimmie Wyvette Verdeen in a priceless unibrow and mullet that completely defines her character in one brushstroke (wigs styled by Michael Cornell).

Yes, the names alone are worth the ticket price of only $12!

Helmed by Executive Artistic Director Will Ragland, this comedy is not highfalutin nor a true farce but is armed with outlandish antics and bizarre eccentricities from this group of misfits that somehow formed a family.

As the Verdeen cousins, Libby, Cindy and Shannon do get more stage time – and none of it is wasted – as Jimmie has a knock-down, drag-out fight with her neighbor Bitsy Hargis (Stephanie Summerlin in one shoe) and I mean dragged out with cool spot-on sound effects and realistic punches and Rocky/Million Dollar Baby landings (fight choreography by Assistant Director Aaron Pennington). I was waiting for them both to smash right through that living room window.

Cindy puts it all out there in shimmery black/gold lame and throws herself at every available man that enters the picture And Shannon’s Jimmie gets the makeover she so desperately needs.

But The Red Velvet Cake War is an ensemble piece with a dozen or more storylines and running gags that Ragland moves along at breakneck speed and efficiency. And some bits are actually much funnier than what the script gives the actors to work with.

Rod McClendon is the flagellant, almost 90-year-old skirt chaser on oxygen, Aubrey Verdeen (the always-amazing Rod probably got the most laughs of any actor when I saw the show).

Janie Dillard maintains a stiff upper lip as the uptight matriarch Aunt LaMerle Verdeen Minshew who cancels the reunion due to the Gaynelle’s scandal and police investigation, and as sole gatekeeper to the family’s prize-winning red velvet cake recipe.

Jesse Winner’s physicality too takes the cake in this show like his previous appearances in Dearly Departed and The Foreigner, lacing his performance as Newt Blaylock with trips and falls and looking for his glass eyeball that keeps popping out because it’s too small for his eye socket….but he got it at a bargain. Great sound effects here as well.

But it is Dona Shiflette as TV homemaker Cee Cee Windham (think Betty White as Sue Ann Nivens) who stole my heart. Her cooking, cleaning and relationship tips (on air or not) had me in stitches, as did her pink attire and 2 foot tall and wide poofy blonde wig.

Also turning in great performances in this play are Krystal Grant as the German shrink observing Gaynelle before her sanity hearing; Annette Larsen as the feisty Mama Doll Hargis, who doesn’t let her walker interfere with her love life; Shane Willimon (who also handled sound effects) in a cameo as Purvis Verdeen; and Ed Chambers back on the MTP set as Sheriff Grover Lout.

My only disappointment is that despite the title of the play and a wager (a house and a quilt) over the best red velvet cake, the bake-off resolution is anti-climactic and offstage, and there isn’t a single red velvet cake in sight in this play. Perhaps the title gave me a hankering for cream cheese frosting.

Scenic design is also by Ragland, with lighting by Kimberly Porth, zany costumes by Sissy Beck, scenic painting by Abby Brown and stage manager is Nancy Burkard.

The Red Velvet Cake War continues through Oct. 3 with shows Thursday-Saturday at 7:30 pm and Saturday and Sunday at 3 p,m. at 214 Lebby Street in Pelzer. Tickets are available at (864) 947-8000 or milltownplayers.org.

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