A local diner, open all night during a terrible snowstorm. A group of lovable locals, gathered around a kind-hearted matron who always has an answer. A scandalous love affair and a secret love child. Amnesia! Blindness! Brain surgery?!?! Oh, and by the way, it’s actually a Christmas show.
Threshold Rep has taken a kitchen-sink approach to the holiday theatre season with their production of Della’s Diner: Blue Plate Special. It’s a ridiculous cocktail of theatrical crazy that somehow manages to come together into something delightful.
Written by Tom Edwards, Della’s Diner is one of six plays set in the titular diner. The series takes country music staples and mashes them up with the campiest of daytime soap opera and telenovela tropes to create a hybrid musical parody genre that is unique and oftentimes quite hilarious.
The songs are all country, gospel, and Christmas standards. It’s a literal jukebox musical, as each number is preceded by a character putting a quarter in the jukebox. Sometimes the song numbers are even used to justify the upcoming number (“She needs to hear the words to B-9.” “NOT B-9?!”).
The story follows Della (a dynamite Yvonne Herold) as she opens her diner and deals with her family and friends in the lead to Christmas. Her daughter Ramona (College of Charleston senior Caroline May) is juggling a child (literally), an ex-husband, and a dream to sing in Nashville. Ricky Jim (Phillip Cingolani going full soap) is the local mechanic with a mysterious past and a longing for Ramona.
The local preacher (Paul O’Brien) is fighting back lustful thoughts about our Della. Ronnie Frank (Anthony T. Matrejek) is Ramona’s ex-husband with his own lustful hankerings for 11th Lady of Country Connie Sue Day (Shelly Goughnour at peak diva). It’s an interesting rogue gallery of tropes.
The tropes are the point though, to drive home the soap opera storytelling. Plot points veer wildly off the rails intentionally, taking us from secret love children to adoptions to emergency brain surgery in a single act. The show opens with a “Last time on Della’s Diner…” voiceover, clueing us in on things we don’t see in this play. Musical cues right out of our best parodies of soap operas greet character traits and major revelations. Just try not to laugh each time a character mentions … Chicago!
The cast is absolutely game too. Herold puts the genre and the script on her shoulders and runs and runs and dances and sings and keeps running. She’s at 110 throughout and it serves the camp and the ridiculousness of the material. Alone, she’d be worth the ticket. But she’s not. Cingolani is somehow even more over-the-top than Herold, reaching cartoon-character levels of absurdity without ever letting down the narrative. The facial expressions of Paul O’Brien’s Preacher Larry are also basically animation worthy, and so very good.
It’s a shame the songs are actually the weakest part of this musical. You’ll no doubt recognize quite a few of them and be tempted to sing or clap along. And while the entire show is outrageous, the songs somehow fail to feel like a true part of the proceedings. The pace of the wacky serial drama actually comes to a halt to allow the songs to drop in and be performed for the audience.
Then the story totally restarts. They are jarring breaks. Perhaps original songs that advanced the narrative would have better served here. Despite this, it’s still a laugh riot that provides a refreshing bit of chaos off the beaten holiday path. What a pleasant surprise.