The opening strains of “Thank You for Being a Friend” had barely escaped the speakers at Roxy’s Downtown before the crowd erupted in cheers.
That’s how the four men – yes, men – who star in Roxy’s take on “The Golden Girls” knew they had a hit last year, with sellout crowds and word-of-mouth circulating throughout Wichita.
And that’s what’s happening again this year, as three of the four main cast members return for a second season of the “theatrical parody” of the beloved 1985-1992 sitcom.
“It did even better than we thought,” said Tom Frye, who returns as unfiltered matriarch Sophia and steps into the director’s spot this year. “We thought it would do well, but on the opening night … they were just screaming.”
This year’s run began on Jan. 27, and will conclude on March 25, with shows Thursday through Saturday nights and Sunday matinees. As of the middle of this week, all of the Friday and Saturday shows in February were sold out. Other performances may be added to the schedule, but obligations by the actors prevent it from extending the run past late March.
Scott Noah, who steps into the heels of actress Rue McClanahan’s sultry Southern belle Blanche this year, said the response of the audience met the promise his co-stars gave him.
“On the opening night, we said it was like a laugh track of a sitcom,” Noah said. “It was nonstop from beginning to end.”
Also returning are Kyle Vespestad as vacuous Rose, played by Betty White on TV; and Monte Wheeler, channeling Bea Arthur’s husky-voiced Dorothy.
Besides Noah, two new cast members – Tracy Tuttle and Kelly Wonsetler – play assorted male and female roles.
Four new episodes are being staged this year:
▪ “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Sophia?” where Sophia (played by Estelle Getty on TV) joins a convent, while Blanche gets in fender-benders in attempts to meet rich men, from the sixth season.
▪ “Goodbye, Mr. Gordon,” where Dorothy renews a relationship with a high school teacher while Rose gets promoted to the producer of a local TV talk show, from the seventh season.
▪ “Love Me Tender,” which finds Dorothy dating an unattractive man with great lovemaking skills, while Blanche and Rose volunteer as big sisters for two teenage girls, from the fourth season.
▪ “If At Last You Do Succeed,” where Dorothy’s ex-husband Stan (Tuttle) finally hits upon a successful business venture, while Rose and Blanche argue over the ownership of war bonds from Rose’s hometown of St. Olaf, Minn.; from season six.
In between the first and second episodes, audience members are asked “Golden Girls” trivia questions for prizes.
Only a handful of the 180 episodes of the series could easily be staged, the actors and director said, because of the number of cast members and the number of settings. A small spot in the audience doubles as Sophia’s convent and a shopping mall for two short segments. In the scene re-creating the TV talk show, the downstage area is used, with two audience volunteers filling the extra chairs onstage.
“We’re finding the ones that had the fewest extra people. I wasn’t going to do the one with the TV show, until I got an idea from another theater,” said Frye, who also adapted the scripts. “We changed a line or two and got the audience involved.”
While men playing women goes back beyond Shakespeare, the four actors playing women said they avoid trying to make the roles too campy.
“There’s times of overdoing the characterization, but nothing to make it camp. You have to roll with the punches,” Wheeler said.
“We want to make this as true to the characters and the episodes as we possibly could,” Vespestad added.
Besides men-as-women, the stage version of “Golden Girls” has something the TV version doesn’t: Performers cracking each other up, and occasionally breaking the fourth wall.
“You have to include (the audience) in bumps in the road that are funny,” Wheeler said.
“If there’s a mistake and we make a joke about it that includes the audience, they adore that,” Frye said. “But that’s not the main thing. If it happens, it happens. We have fun with it and we move on.”
“The Golden Girls” has never fallen out of favor with the public, with successful cable TV runs nearly 25 years after the final episode. The streaming service Hulu made a big splash in announcing that it was carrying the series for binge-watchers, beginning this week.
Other cities have staged “Golden Girls” stage versions with male performers, the actors said, and several acquaintances convinced Roxy’s personnel that it would work in Wichita.
“They’re all over the place,” Vespestad said.
“Ours happens to be the best,” Frye added.
One element of the local show’s success, Frye said, is that all four of the main performers have lengthy resumes in Wichita theater, and the cast members will inevitably know at least several people in the audience.
It’s like they threw a party, and invited everyone they knew.
Frye said that’s one of several reasons for the Wichita “Golden Girls” success.
“It’s a popular TV show,” he said. “It’s four men dressed as women. And it’s four men that have been very popular in Wichita for many years. Many people know us.
“You’re getting all these ingredients,” he added. “It’d better be good.”
‘THE GOLDEN GIRLS’
What: Theatrical parody of the beloved classic TV series with four men portraying Dorothy, Rose, Blanche and Sophia
Where: Roxy’s Downtown, 412½ E. Douglas
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays, through March 25
Tickets: $20, $27 and $30; doors open 90 minutes before showtime. Call 316-265-4400.