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Kitschy Tallulah & Hattie a quirky blend of styles

One of the quirkiest friendships of Hollywood's Golden Age was between chic "bad girl" starlet Tallulah Bankhead and groundbreaking black actress Hattie McDaniel. By playing Mammy in Gone With the Wind, McDaniel was the first African-American woman to win an Academy Award, while Bankhead was most famous simply for being famous, with her best-remembered movie probably being Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat. Bankhead told the press that McDaniel was her best friend, and gossip columnists hinted that their relationship was more than platonic. In speculating about how the odd couple would interact, local playwright Pamela Parker (author of Second Samuel and Dreams of Martha Stewart) shrugs off the Sapphic subtext as merely rumor and instead constructs a decidedly strange musical revue, Tallulah & Hattie: Dead at the Pearly Gate Cafe.

Currently playing at Theatre in the Square, Tallulah & Hattie imagines the movie stars as posthumously performing in a heavenly cabaret, entertaining the recently deceased as they await their final judgment. With music and songs co-written by Nat Martin, Tallulah & Hattie proves an upbeat but wearying evening and an eccentric mix of campy star power and eclectic musical styles.

Dex Edwards' set for the Pearly Gates Cafe looks exactly like a Starbuck's on Cloud Nine, with even the prominent logo, a coffee cup with angelic wings, resembling the design of the modern java franchise. As performers, Hattie (Bernardine Mitchell) and Tallulah (Sally Bondi) are working off their mortal sins to earn their wings as angels. Three "cherubs" (Kim Bowers-Rheay, Valerie Payton and Haviland Stillwell, all likable), wearing kitschy robes and bouncy white wings, are their back-up singers. "Your weeping and wailing are all at an end," they explain in song. "We're angels-we dance on the head of a pin!"

Between musical numbers, our emcees review the rules of the afterlife: "You do realize that you're all dead, dahlings?" says Tallulah. Hattie reveals that there's no hell, and Tallulah quips, "I think they know that, Hats, by the mere fact that I'm here." They make a big point that linear time doesn't exist in Heaven — but if that's the case, then why is there waiting of any sort?

Generally, the show's repartee has the tone and wit of a Bob Hope TV special, with the hostesses gently teasing each other, then paying each other florid tributes. The show is frequently interrupted by cell phone calls from St. Peter, whom Tallulah gripes about as a stick-in-the-mud. The celestial prohibition on profanity forces Tallulah to make exclamations like "Balzac!" "Fried green tomatoes!" etc.

Mostly, Tallulah & Hattie is an innocuous piece of kitsch built around unmemorable if not unpleasant musical numbers. The duo snap their fingers for the cool jazz of "You Done Died and Gone to Heaven," dabble in Texas swing with "No Time at All" and kick-up their heels country-style in "Colorado." Fortunately, bland ballads like "Photograph," which could be the soundtrack of a Kodak commercial, are few.

To fill a full two hours, Parker and Martin seem to increasingly strain to find songs to fit their premise. Thus Tallulah and Hattie adapt violent drawls to croon in the style of Tammy Wynette for "Big Hair, Big Dreams" ("The taller the hair, the closer to the Lord," they reveal). McDaniel's holiday carol "Christmastime Anytime, Everytime" is about as flavorless a tune sung by the charismatic Mitchell can be. The show even sets lyrics to Pachebel's "Canon in D" for the climactic "Love Song," an interesting composition that seems out of place here.

Bondi might not look much like Bankhead, but she works to make up for it with plenty of glamour queen attitude, wielding cigarette holders, martini glasses and feather boas. It can be fun to see Tallulah celebrate her own uninhibited ways in songs like "Bankhead from Alabama" and "Girls in the Gallery," but her self-praise becomes repetitious by the second act with songs like "I Wore the Day Out."

Mitchell remains a forceful performer with talents larger than this particular show. She brings both gravitas and grace to gospel-flavored songs such as "When I Get My Wings," when the show comes closest to taking flight. And "I Was First," an Aretha Franklin-esque soul tune about Hattie's Oscar, offers one of the play's most moving moments, with Mitchell reciting McDaniel's actual acceptance speech.

The play's most bizarre song, "Welcome to Heaven, Lamb Chop," offers a tribute to the famed sock puppet of the late Shari Lewis (and speculates about the place of other fictional characters in heaven). Tallulah & Hattie: Dead at the Pearly Gate Cafe has a unique sensibility, and it's hard to think of many scripts comparable to it. But it mostly plays like an uninspired drag show, only cast with women instead of men. The cast gives it their all, but if this is what the afterlife promises for entertainment, then heaven can wait.

Tallulah and Hattie: Dead at the Pearly Gate Cafe plays through July 11 at Theatre in the Square, 11 Whitlock Ave., Marietta, with performances at 8 p.m. Tues.-Sat. and 2:30 and 7 p.m. Sun. $20-$30. 770-422-8369.??

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