For the curtain call of Friday night's sold-out opening night performance of "A Madea Christmas" at the Cobb Energy Centre, writer-director-star Tyler Perry traded in his wig for his CEO hat. Bringing the house lights up, The Atlanta film and television studio owner asked the crowd how much they paid to see the show being recorded for DVD release this holiday season.
When someone up front yelled out that they had spent $90 for a ticket Perry charged $25 for, the creator of the "Madea" franchise shook his head. "I set a $25 price intentionally so you all could see the show. I know that times are hard."
Referring to last year's truncated national tour of "Madea's Big Happy Family," Perry explained: "This is what ran me off tour the last time. You see, these bootleggers buy up all the tickets and then charge you three, four, five and ten times the ticket price. Do me a favor, please: Go to the box office to buy your tickets."
For his latest stage play, Perry selected a top-notch cast, including R&B singer Cheryl Pepsii Riley and mainstay "Madea" ensemble cast member Cassi Davis as Aunt Bam. The play had two additional performances on Saturday.
A stickler for being on time, Perry brought down the house lights promptly at 8 p.m. even as late-comers groped their way to their seats with cocktails. A man sitting behind Intel in the Grand Tier section whispered to his female companion: "Tyler is not playing. It's 8 o'clock on the dot!" Just then, with a nod to one of Madea's pet peeves, a couple who had driven in from Perry's hometown of New Orleans showed up in the row in front of us with an infant.
For two hours on a lavish two-story home interior set, Perry's Mabel Simmons helmed the Christmas crisis taking place at the tony Cape Cod estate of the wealthy Mansell family where Madea's niece Margaret (played by Riley) had to work through the holidays. For good measure, Perry's script added a boozy cook, multiple male suitors, a brother and sister named China and Japan and a family secret worthy of a "Dr. Phil" sweeps episode.
It took a looong 32 minutes for Perry's script to frame out the Mansell family backstory before the play's namesake thundered to the front step. In Act Two especially, it became obvious that Perry was still working out the final texts of Madea's monologues focusing on the sacrifices of working parents, paying taxes and the importance of God in each person's life, yearly household income notwithstanding.
Perry even stopped to work out a joke during Madea's entrance in Act Two. After Madea warned her kleptomaniac kin George, telling him: "If you take anything, I'm gonna rip your adam's apple out of your throat and feed it to you!," Perry the writer opted to do the joke over. With the audience's roaring approval, Madea then told her nephew: "George, I'm gonna rip your scrotum out and feed it to you!" Perry the director then added: "I can always edit that!"
Often, especially during the play's super-sized second act, the play felt a bit like an extended "Carol Burnett Show" sketch as Perry and the actors broke each other up and paused the action to laugh. At one point, Perry went so far a field in the script as Madea, Riley tried three times to say her line "with all due respect Mrs. Mansell" which doubled as the intro for her song "Jesus Never Fails."
After her third failed attempt, Perry broke character to praise Riley, saying "God bless you. You're determined to get that line out. I was out there somewhere in left field. We would have been here til 2:30 in the morning!"
The funniest pieces from the three performances will be edited together for the finished Christmas play DVD release this fall.
For all the play's looseness in delivery, Perry's audience clearly loved it. The sold-out crowd gave him and the cast a standing ovation at the musical's conclusion. After one woman down front informed the producer she had taken a Greyhound bus from New York City to see the play, he offered to fly her home.
"My life is one blessing after another," Perry told the crowd. "I don't take this and what you've done for me over the years for granted. I'm grateful."