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'HATS!' STRICTLY FOR THE 50-PLUS CLUB

Based on stories from the Red Hat Society, the TBPAC show plays like a musical advertisement.

If you think that Hats! is just another version of the wildly popular Menopause, the Musical, you would be a little bit right and a little bit wrong.

Both shows have all-female-of-a-certain-age casts. Both talk about the second half of life (okay, maybe the last third). And both are built around songs.

But Menopause is about a specific event, and its songs are parodies of ones we know.

Hats!, at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, is a paean to the Red Hat Society - well, more like a 90-minute infomercial for the trademarked organization mainly for women 50 and over that charges each chapter $39-a-year dues. It also is based on one event, reaching 50, but its stories cover the decades that follow, and it has a dozen new songs by such people as Kathie Lee Gifford, Melissa Manchester and Pam Tillis.

Hats! also has a different feel. Menopause is in-your-face, booty-shaking defiant; Hats! is often break-your-heart melancholy. The laughs are as often rueful as they are heartfelt, especially in songs like My Empty Nest and Invisible, which are filled with loneliness and pain.

Hats! is the story of MaryAnne (Marguerite Bennett), who is 1 hour, 12 minutes from being 50 and isn't happy about it. She's being buoyed by her mom (Jean Vanier) and her mom's Red Hat cohorts, who, like Animal House Deltas, have special club names, theirs based on royalty.

There's Contessa (Wendy Starkand, who also plays mildly irritating kibitzer Ruby Red Hat), married three times, twice to the same fellow; Baroness (Carrie SaLoutos), a high-powered executive facing her first date since a painful divorce; Lady, MaryAnne's mom, a wistful widow; Dame (Eileen Koteles), a devoted wife and mom who wonders what to do now that her kids are gone; Princess (Lynne Locher), whose husband has left her for a younger woman; and Duchess (Nadeen Holloway), the best-adjusted and happiest of the lot.

The stories are those of women born before 1958 and women's lib, women whose mothers urged them to major in education, because "you need something to fall back on," as MaryAnne says, and who often find themselves alone midway through life and are looking for companionship.

The Red Hat Society, which has 40,000 chapters worldwide, is tailor-made for them - and happily married women, too, I suppose.

TBPAC has scheduled 112 performances, and many are sold out. A recent Wednesday matinee was 95 percent filled with ladies in purple dresses and red hats, many with red feather boas and at least one with a bright red aluminum walker.

Barbara L. Fredricksen can be reached at fredricksen@sptimes.com.

IF YOU GO

Hats!

The musical runs through April 27 at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, 1010 N MacInnes Place, Tampa. Shows 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; no 7:30 p.m. show Feb. 23; a 2 p.m. show April 1. $29.50. (813) 229-7827; www.tbpac.org.

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