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Arts and Entertainment Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016 5 years ago

The Plump Sisters bring musical-comedy drag performance to Sarasota

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With their musical-comedy drag duo, Plump Sisters Productions, Parker Lawhorne and Kelly Leissler pay over-the-top tribute to showbiz of the past.
by: Nick Friedman Managing Editor of Arts and Culture

The year is 1945. Two American airline attendants have crash-landed in war-torn Germany, where they’re seeking refuge. Nearby, an audience is gathered in a broken-down bar for a live Christmas radio broadcast to raise funds for the country’s rebuilding efforts. 

The broadcast is showcasing some of the country’s top performers and is hosted by Tiggles McCoy — one of Europe’s hottest boogie-woogie vocalists. The attendants are sisters Ester and Eleanor Plump: two vivacious, larger-than-life former performers. Years ago, they had a taste of life in the spotlight, and they’ve never quite been able to let it go.

Parker Lawhorne and Kelly Leissler started Plump Sisters Productions to offer Sarasota a narrative, musical-comedy drag performance. Photo by Salvatore Brancifort

They’re hardly qualified to perform on a bill like this. But they just can’t help but join in the show.

In reality, Ester and Eleanor Plump are Parker Lawhorne and Kelly Leissler, the two men behind Plump Sisters Productions — a new narrative musical drag show they formed this summer that features original songs, choreography, sets and costumes.

On Thursday, Dec. 15, the World War II-era routine, with all its twists, turns and raunchy jokes, will unfold in the dinner theater of the Starlite Room in the group’s second performance, “Christmas Belles of ’45.”

Lawhorne and Leissler say the idea was born out of their long-running desire to perform a sister act together and bring a new type of drag performance — one rooted in original musical comedy — to their hometown of Sarasota.

The two both attended Booker High School and have performed in the local theater scene, developing the idea — and their characters —over the years.

Photo by Salvatore Brancifort

“We would joke around, doing this voice in the dressing room at shows,” says Leissler. “It’s not a British accent; it’s not an American accent — it’s this mid-Atlantic 1940s-style actor accent, like something you would hear in classic movies.”

To illustrate, Lawhorne quickly jumps into the voice, a throaty, rapid-fire pitter-patter cadence reminiscent of Judy Garland.

“Hey, Sal, how ya doin? What are ya doin later? Let’s grab a cocktail and head to the cinema!”

It’s the type of voice that begs to be followed by an over-the-top musical number. He laughs.

“It was just this joke we would do, and we would improv and run with it,” says Lawhorne. “But from there, we thought, ‘What if these two were sisters? It spawned this whole world, complete with back stories for both of them and a storyline that we could continue with prequels and sequels.”

Kelly Leissler, as Ethel Plump, and Parker Lawhorne, as Eleanor Plump. Photo by John Revisky

As the characters took shape, they became a tribute to strong female performers from the period — Carol Burnett, Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe — poking fun at Hollywood’s often one-dimensional portrayal of women at the time. The two began tossing around potential last names for the sisters.

Pudge? Frump? When they landed on Plump, they decided it was the perfect fit.

“We’re both bigger boys,” says Lawhorne, slipping back into his character’s voice.

Onstage, Lawhorne is Eleanor Plump, the duo’s ingénue. She’s bright, but assumes a ditzy façade. Her true desire is to find a husband and settle down, but for her sister’s sake, she sticks out the pursuit of fame.

Leissler’s Ester Plump, his first drag experience, is the counterpart — the villainous one. Talented but a bit unhinged, she’s driven by her thirst for fame, despite her lack of qualification. Allusions to her past reveal she might not have the cleanest of criminal records.

“She’s a woman who thinks she’s this incredible beauty and talent,” says Leissler. “She thinks she has everything going for her. But on the outside, she’s just a train wreck. She had a taste of fame when she was younger, and she’s clinging to it with everything she’s got.”

Brian Finnerty and Parker Lawhorne perform in the musical-comedy drag show, Plump Sisters. Photo by John Revisky

Eleanor Plump isn’t Lawhorne’s first foray into the world of drag. He performed in the Players’ production of “La Cage aux Folles,” but this is different, he says.

The drag is just one aspect of it. He wanted the duo to be a full dinner-theater experience, complete with original writing and song and dance that would draw audiences into the story.

It’s hard not to be drawn in. Using his professional background as a makeup artist, Parker transforms himself and Leissler almost beyond recognition. When they’re onstage, he says, they truly become these two sisters.

Brian Finnerty, Kelly Leissler and Parker Lawhorne. Photo by John Revisky

“People really think we are these women,” says Leissler. “My grandma came to the first show, and midway through our intermission, she looked at my mom and asked, ‘When is Kelly coming on stage?’”

Dressed in A-line dresses, heels and pill-box hats, singing double entendre-laden tunes and packing their script with raunchy wordplay, Lawhorne and Leissler’s drag performance calls back to show business stylings of the ’40s in an off-Broadway-style production one might’ve seen in New York City in the ’80s.

They’re happy to pay tribute to the art form and offer people something new. “Christmas Belles of ’45” will feature both original songs and Christmas favorites for an evening of over-the-top entertainment.

“It’s outrageous,” says Lawhorne. “We pull out all of the stops. This isn’t your average drag show, that’s for sure. We’re just two big boys in wigs who want to play beautiful women and make the world laugh.”

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