‘The Golden Girls’ come alive on stage in Philly — as puppets

Arlee Chadwick as Rose, Michael LaMasa as Dorothy Emmanuelle, Zeesman as Sophia and Cat Greenfield as Blanche

“That Golden Girls Show! A Puppet Parody,” coming to the Kimmel Cultural Campus’s Merriam Theater this week, covers the beloved characters and feelings of the popular show that ran from 1985 to 1992.

However, what this show does a bit differently is pretty obvious — puppets. Using intricate puppet designs and the art of storytelling, the performers, who have been on the road since October, showcase Rose, Dorothy, Blanche and Sophia. Much of what you see on stage comes directly from the TV show, but mixed with the nostalgia is also timeless themes and jokes from each character, and the puppets showcase the stories in a new way.

Samantha Lee Mason who plays Rose Nylund (Betty White’s character) sat down to chat more about how she got involved with the show; what it means to her getting to play a national icon; and overall what it’s really like to work with puppets on stage.

‘That Golden Girls Show! A Puppet Parody’Provided

How did you first get involved with this show? Were you a fan of Golden Girls?

I was cast in “That Golden Girls Show” in August, and we’ve been on the road since the end of October. I had previously seen an episode every once and a while of “Golden Girls,” but when I was preparing for my audition, I started watching from the beginning and I was hooked very quickly. I immediately connected with the character of Rose and just fell in love with Betty White’s portrayal of the character.

Why puppets? What do they bring to the Golden Girls experience?

I think puppets help to elevate the storytelling and bring the girls to life. None of the actor/puppeteers playing the iconic ladies necessarily resemble our characters physically, but with the combination of our vocals and physicalization as well as the movement and expression of the puppets, we get to revive these characters in a new, very fun way.

What can fans of the television show expect from this live show, and what about new audiences? Do you think new fans will be able to dive into the characters and story?

Most of our dialogue in “That Golden Girls Show” is pulled right out of the series, so there are lots of moments that fans of the show will know and love and sometimes say along with us. In that way, I think our show is really a love letter to the original series and a great nostalgic moment for the fans. But even if you have never seen an episode of “The Golden Girls,” the humor and the relationships are still relatable, witty and funny for any audience. Hopefully, we inspire some audience members who have never seen the series to start watching.

What can you tell me about your character?

Rose Nylund is the heart of the Golden Girls. She is earnest and sweet, but her humor stems from the fact that she is not always the brightest bulb. She loves to tell the other girls endless stories from her upbringing in St. Olaf, Minnesota. She is lovable and naive and [is] always willing to lend a helping hand or a shoulder to cry on. 

What are some of the strengths and challenges with performing with puppets? 

I was fortunate enough to have experience with puppetry prior to working on “That Golden Girls Show,” and I have worked with similar style puppets. Each of the puppets we work with on the show is a little bit different, and the Rose puppet’s unique challenge is that she is double-rodded, so I had to learn a different vocabulary of movement to be able to move each of Rose’s hands freely, all while making sure her mouth is syncing to what she is saying. When you start out, it definitely has a “pat your head and rub your belly” type feeling, but with lots of practice, it has now become second nature. It has been a great and welcome challenge for me, and I think it has really improved my skillset as a puppeteer. 

‘That Golden Girls Show! A Puppet Parody.’Provided

With Betty White just recently passing, how do you feel? What do you hope your character/this show brings to her legacy? 

I was devastated when I learned the news of her passing. Even though it seemed like something that would inevitably happen, I think the world just really hoped she would live forever. But her body of work, her legacy of kindness, and her animal advocacy will truly allow her to live on forever. After spending so much time studying her life and performance, I really wish that I had had the opportunity to meet her — the more I get to spend time with her character, the more I just fall in love with her. I feel very lucky that I get to be able to spread a little bit of Betty White joy when I play Rose Nylund, and I just hope that I am able to do her proud. 

Overall what do you hope people take away from the show? 

Above everything, we want to make our audience laugh. The cast has such an amazing time performing the show, and we all really love getting to revive these amazing characters. Especially right now, I think it is so important to experience live theater and have the chance to escape the stress of the world and just have a great time. 

“That Golden Girls Show! A Puppet Parody” will hit the Merriam Theater at the Kimmel Cultural Campus Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. 

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