BWW Reviews: LTM's STEEL MAGNOLIAS Blooms with Strong Cast
Theatre: Little Theatre of Manchester
Location: Cheney Hall, 177 Hartford Road, Manchester, CT
Production: By Robert Harling; Directed and Set Design by Joseph Keach-Longo; Lighting Design by Meg Ryan; Costume Design by Julie Waxman; Sound Design by Ronald Schallack. Through April 27; Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. Sunday, April 27 at 2 p.m. Tickets $19-$29, call 860-647-9824 or visit www.cheneyhall.org.
Little Theatre of Manchester's programming this season isn't going to raise the bar on adventurous theatergoing in the Silk City, but the company continues to be on a roll, providing sturdy productions of beloved plays and musicals. After a raucous start with Noises Off!, the gang at Cheney Hall serves up a funny, sassy and heartfelt Steel Magnolias.
The starry 1989 film version proved to be an audience favorite with an ideal cast including Olympia Dukakis, Sally Field, Shirley Maclaine, Dolly Parton, Julia Roberts and Daryl Hannah. It recently received a heavy-hitter African American makeover on TV with Queen Latifah, Phylicia Rashad and Alfre Woodard. What would seem like a Lifetime Movie-of-the-Week (well, the TV version actually was a Lifetime Movie-of-the-Week), is elevated by real emotion and a salon-full of snappy one-liners.
You would think that the stage version, which debuted in 1987, would be a no-brainer built in with audience appeal, but I found the similarly-starry Broadway production in 2005 (featuring Delta Burke, Frances Sternhagen and Christine Ebersole), a bigger mess than a Southern hair-do on a hot, humid day. It was flat where it should be poofier than a pageant princess's blowout and emotionally uninvolving.
LTM's Steel Magnolias, directed with affection and good taste by Joseph Keach-Longo, does not manage to erase the memory of the movie, but it also doesn't seek to recreate it. Cast beautifully, this production reminds us why gay men and straight women alike love the piece. All the many laugh lines are there and most of them land as intended. The sappy lines are there, too, but they are delivered with conviction, so you forgive them.
Steel Magnolias is, above all else, a story of the closeness of women's friendships. The friendships don't get tested much in terms of internal strife (good-hearted squabbling aside) as much as stay on the safer ground of being there for one another during the bad times. I won't spoil the major plot point, but suffice to say if you can't see where this train is headed before the end of the first scene in the first act, you are as blind as a fruit bat.
The cast is across-the-board enjoyable. Where I found the younger cast members in Noises Off to be lacking, in Steel Magnolias, the two youngest cast members threaten to walk off with the show. Marisa Clement is smart, tart and heartbreaking in the role of Shelby. She is a stunning talent to watch. Jess Schladebeck evidences the greatest journey in the show from abandoned dishrag to craft queen to a conservative Christian with fresh purpose. What could be a silly journey is funny and compassionate.
The more, uh, "veteran" cast are solid with Angela Dias providing the aristocratic Clairee with just the right touch of down-low sass the character needs. Mary Roane is appropriately mothering and gossipy as the salon maven Truvy. Debi Freund, despite an accent that occasionally inches North of the Mason-Dixon line, adeptly keeps her M'Lynn straddling the comic and dramatic line in this play. Unsurprisingly, Freund is not afraid to dig down for the play's big climax. Dawn Maselli's Ouiser is a wonderfully crusty comic creation that, occasionally, shows a softer center.
Director Keach-Longo wisely remembers why the film versions are multi-star vehicles: Steel Magnolias is an ensemble piece where there can be no weak link and no one stealing focus. LTM's Southern belles maintain this sense of balance and camaraderie, even where dark skies threaten the horizon.
The final moments when the play wallops you with sadness isn't quite as impactful as I was hoping. Although many of the folks in the performance I attended were sniffling and dabbing their eyes, I didn't quite get there. This is not surprising as I am, after all, a heartless critic. For gay men, the show will remind you of the endlessly quotable lines. For ladies, it's a terrific outing for you and your girlfriends. For straight men, after the show, I found a coupon on my car for $5 off the Hungry Tiger. Steel Magnolias is a win-win-win.
Cast photo by Chris Heustis of Photosynthesis.