By Steve Odenthal
I walked into a family gathering and felt right at home taking a seat at the Good Company Theatre’s production of Odettes for the Holidays! in Ogden, Utah. This theater makes you feel like an old friend from the moment you walk in the door and start to mix with other patrons anticipating good things to come. The name, Good Company Theatre, is appropriate as it regularly provides good company to mingle with and enjoy in its patrons and also in its intimate venue and performance. This show did not redefine family values for me; it took my hand, warmed my heart, and reaffirmed what family is—that is exactly what I was after on this evening.
I didn’t know a single person in the cast of this new show, but instantly I felt that I actually did. The heart and charm of this show overwhelms. I know each of these roles so very well from my experience at my own family gatherings so, even though the faces and circumstances onstage are not exact, the human emotion, frailty, and forgiveness displayed throughout the evening are dead-on and particularly familiar. I felt invited in from the start.
Odettes for the Holidays! by Camille Washington is an original work that debuted with this same theatre company in 2014. The play is not a typical musical but rather a play with music—one traditional standard, O Holy Night and five original compositions (Tinsel and Mistletoe, Jingle Jangle, I Forgot the Bow, Stream of Stars, Snow Angel) by Washington charm us thoroughly and speed our inclusion into the warm embrace of the production. Dorinda “Dori” Pendleton (Mack) captivates us immediately as she amps up the lead on O Holy Night beautifully and is joined by the other Odettes (Sammee Lydia James playing Regina “Reggie” Johnson, and Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin playing Adelaide “Della” Crawford) in delicious harmony. This musical number, besides being delivered beautifully and showing the immensity of the voices the cast members are gifted with, sets the tone for the show and the relationships we uncover in this “family”.
The three women each bring certain brilliance to each of their roles, which are easily identifiable in every family; this one, mine and I bet in yours as well. Darby-Duffin plays the successful one, who conquers whatever is out there. She is that family member who, while not having anything handed to her, has persevered and has a lesson to teach wherever she goes. She is a straight-shooter and the actress brings a charisma to the stage that is hard to miss. Darby-Duffin plays the role very well and knows how to dim her light in a scene without ever losing it or us. She was a delight to watch.
The Reggie character was handled with great delicacy by James. Reggie is at a private crossroads in her life, having inherited from her mother, Deloris, a great love for singing and a wonderful voice. She has excelled away from the music world in academia but cannot help wanting to stick her toe into the waters where her mother and her “Aunts” had made their big splash. Before Deloris’ death, she had been determined to have her own legacy go forward through Reggie’s voice, but a dilemma the young girl’s wrestles with is finding her own true path. James plays this role with a wonderful smile and a forgiving heart but a deep hurt for how things ended with Deloris and the other girls. At once, brave yet, still an innocent in the world, we watch Reggie begin to change for the better as the family sorts out and mentors each other through real conversation and the blending of beautiful voices.
I thoroughly enjoyed Mack’s (yes, just Mack—an actress with a sense of humor and an appropriately named dog, Cheese) portrayal of Dorinda. Her character was the one that completed the girl-group back in the day. Dorinda was younger by four years and that fact was always available when the girl needed a little straightening out by her partners in song. Dorinda opens the show with her arrival at the Double-Time Lounge and her natural authenticity with Woody lets us know from the start that we are going to be treated to deep-rooted relationships and love in the evening ahead. Of the three women, I found this character the most fragile as she carried guilt, loss and grief longer than the others. The forgiveness she sought from Reggie was, in fact, disguising a need for Dorinda to forgive herself. Well done, Mack.
I really enjoyed how each of the characters in the show had their assigned place in this new trio now that their former leader, Deloris, was not with them. At times they each stood their ground, gave way, re-shuffled the deck and discovered where they fit with each other. They did this all in the spirit of love and acceptance. A valuable lesson can be learned here. Deep wounds were healed and the fabric of family was re-woven before our eyes. This play tugs at the heartstrings in a big way.
The framework of the story is not complicated but we are still lucky enough to have a guide along to enhance the telling in Woodrow “Woody” Watson (Laikwan Waigwa-Stone). Woody cares so deeply for all of the ladies, having been there during the highs and lows for each of them as an accompanist and friend. With a quiet additional word or two, placed within the trio’s conversation his purpose is to tell a completed story and finalize an unspoken thought. Quick and decisive in his delivery of just the words “missing in action” Wigwa-Stone relates the fate of a father/soldier sent to the jungle after Korea when the women’s words taper off. Nothing more needs to be said and the hurt is explained while punctuating the women’s running conversation. Waigwa-Stone brings weariness to the stage having been there and done that for these women through the years, but most of all he brings his own respect and love for the girls-grown-to-women and his immense worth to this family is in being the “glue” for the ensemble. The Woody character is there from the start and we know he always will be there for each of them without ever asking for anything in return. Woody can never be anything but family, and everyone onstage and watching knows it.
Two of the original Odettes return to their hometown, where they and their deceased partner (Deloris Johnson) had formed the 60’s sensational girl-group, at the request of Deloris’ daughter to pay tribute in song to her mother’s memory. But like most families, there are some slights and tender points within the relationships of the group. As they sort out these things before us, we learn certain truths in life. Chief among those lessons are that families are formed not just by blood, and that grief has no exact expiration date. We watch as three women rediscover and assemble a few puzzle-pieces of their lives that had previously been set aside, not intentionally abandoned.
The staging of this production is simple and it needs to be exactly that. The Double-Time Lounge is where the magic is set to be re-captured for the Odettes with the young Reggie filling her mother’s role. This could be any club in the 70’s, but the design (Alicia Washington) drips with a sense of jazz history and we just know that any act worth its salt at one time passed through here early in their career. The lounge, though not a proving ground itself for new talent, has hosted its share of acts paying their early dues. In discussing this with the playwright, C. Washington explained that she had been enchanted with Ogden’s rich history of Jazz clubs, performers and performances from the 1940’s and 1950’s and wanted to send a “love letter” to that feel of the city and also to the characters and the actors who portray them here. Speaking with her about that intention and then watching her show, there is no doubt that she succeeded.
If you are searching for a production that brings a love of family, tugs at your heartstrings, is inclusive in its sense of caring and shows how much we are the same, this might be the show for you. You may not have voices that can blend and belt like this in your own family, but I believe you will see a lot of common ground here. We all face emotional challenges in our relationships and this show brings home how love and caring can conquer all. I highly recommend this show for all audiences. This is another quality performance at the Good Company Theatre.
Good Company Theatre presents Odettes for the Holidays! by Camille Washington
Good Company Theatre 2402 Wall Avenue Ogden, Utah 84401
December 8-23 | Thursday-Saturday 8:00 PM | 2nd Saturday and Sunday 4:00 PM
Good Company Theatre Facebook Page