BY SCOTT STIFFLER | Picture it: October 7, 2016. New York City. Three friends meet up to see the “That Golden Girls Show! — A Puppet Parody.” They smile; they laugh; they delight in a free-flowing exchange of risqué tales, camaraderie, and affectionate insults. Then the actual performance begins. Soon after, boredom sets in. Then betrayal. The onstage antics are nowhere near as entertaining as the show’s clever press campaign suggests! An interminable 90 minutes later — three times the length of its namesake — our disappointed trio exits the theater, realizing they’ve just had their chains yanked by a bunch of puppets.
One of those friends…was me. Happily, I’m still on speaking terms with the others, despite subjecting them to a show for which we were given complimentary press tickets; but are, I feel, somehow still owed a refund (days later, one pal remarked that her favorite part was the theme song sing-along; ouch!).
What purports to be an affectionate tribute to the 1985-1992 TV show about four Miami-based seniors living under the same roof (and eating copious amounts of cheesecake) is, in fact, a dead-end walk down memory lane stuffed with potent zingers reproduced verbatim from the iconic sitcom — an act of shameless plagiarism masquerading as a creative choice, while wrapping itself in the protections afforded by “fair use” legal doctrine (you’re allowed to reproduce the work of others by claiming it’s in the service humorous commentary, hence the word “parody” in the show’s title).
Created and directed by Jonathan Rockefeller, this community-theater-level endurance test is little more than a collection of one-liners and plot points that “Golden Girls” fans committed to memory long, long ago. There certainly are raucous laughs of recognition the first dozen or so times a character tells a familiar joke, or exhibits their trademark behavior (Blanche is horny; Sophia is cranky). But that well soon runs dry, and only serves to heighten the contrast between quality sitcom writing and Rockefeller’s failed attempt to craft new material for these well-known, much-loved characters.
What little “original” content there is manifests in the form of scenarios and dialogue that merely riff on, invoke, or recontextualize “golden” moments from the show. Dimwitted Rose, for example, seeks to marry Dorothy’s ex, the suddenly wealthy Stan, in order to fund her Herring Circus. Stan, for reasons never explained (let alone used to comedic effect) is the only character on stage not made out of foam-rubber. He does, however, use a sock puppet in a manner similar to — but not as funny as — the original series Stan, who once carried around a fake monkey made from a traffic cone, in an attempt to emotionally emancipate himself from Dorothy (1991’s “The Monkey Show,” season 7, episodes 8 & 9).
It’s too bad the general approach falls so flat, and so hard — because puppet designer Joel Gennari’s use of exaggerated features (Blanche’s eyebrows), signature props (Sophia’s purse) and multiple costume changes (Dorothy’s jazzercise outfit) nails each character’s essence, and gives their already outrageous behavior a cartoonish quality that’s tremendous fun to watch.
The puppeteers are equally game. As Sophia, appropriately diminutive Emmanuelle Zeesman dispenses insults with glee, while deploying a consistently funny geriatric shuffle. Cat Greenfield’s slinky frame and loopy Southern drawl is less an imitation of Blanche and more of an impression, but it’s a good one. Arlee Chadwick, as Rose, is little beyond simply agreeable (it doesn’t help that she’s saddled with Rockefeller-penned takes on the sitcom’s beloved Scandinavian gibberish and St. Olaf stories). The husky line readings and slow burn reactions of Weston Chandler Long (a man!) do great justice to TV Dorothy’s mastery of deadpan delivery. Note to the director: Cutting the show in half, then turning your cast loose for some improvised Q&A (or having Long perform excerpts from Bea Arthur’s 2002 “Just Between Friends” solo stage show) would have sent the audience into the night with the feeling that they saw something new, instead of something they can (and should!) watch every day of the week on Hallmark Channel.
Perhaps in an attempt to divert attention from his wholesale plundering, the press release cites its creator/director as devoting “time to philanthropic work furthering childhood literacy and appreciation of the arts.” That’s nice; but were he to channel every last penny of profit from this show into funding those worthy causes — then add no-kill animal shelters and cleft palate surgeries to the mix — Rockefeller would barely move the needle on the scale of Karmic debt he owes to those whose enduring love “The Golden Girls” merits something other than this lumbering production.
It may have been a hallucination brought on by the overly long run time, but at one point, I swear I saw a puppet repeatedly blink the word “torture” in Morse code. Let’s hope fan indifference at the box office sends this anemic atrocity off to the Shady Pines Retirement Home for Half-Baked Ideas.
Through Dec. 1: Mon., Tues. & Thurs. at 7:30pm; Fri. at 7:30pm & 10pm; Sat. at 3pm & 8pm; Sun. at 3pm. At Union Square’s DR2 Theatre (103 E. 15th St., btw. Union Sq. East and Irving Pl.). For tickets ($69; $99 Golden VIP), visit ticketmaster.com or call 800-982-2787. Visit ThatGoldenGirlsShow.com.