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A CurtainUp Review
Steel Magnolias

I have a strict philosophy that I have stuck to for fifteen years. . .there's no such thing as natural beuty.
--- Truvy explaining why she's never lost a client to competitors like the Kut and Kurl or the Beauty Box.
Frances Sternhagen & Delta Burke
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Does Broadway need a revival of Steel Magnolias? After all, it had a three year run at the Lucille Lortel Theater, has enjoyed hundreds of productions around the country and been made into a successful movie.

If you think that it deserves to add a Broadway production to its credits and want to see Frances Sternhagen, Masha Mason and that delightful "designing woman," Delta Burke replay this sisterhood under the drier comedy, you'll want to make an appointment to be part of the Saturday mornings Truvy Jones reserves for a few special customers in her Chinquapin Parish, Louisiana beauty salon. For all who yearn for a Broadway not overrun by revivals mounted with an eye firmly fixed on safe returns, Steel Magnolias will underscore the fact that timely new plays like John Patrick Shanley's Doubt are the exception to the bottom line spirit ruling the Broadway theater scene.

With the movie being often rebroadcast as well as a best renter, Truvy and her special Saturday customers are no strangers to most people so this is another case so its freshness relies on the starry cast and and the public's appetite for nostalgia. The cast does deliver some first-class performances. Jason Moore's reverential direction drips with nostalgic authenticity.

The beauty parlor setting and the dialogue's mix of gossip, recipe exchanges and observations on life and marriage would seem to make this a Ladies Night Out show, unlike Twelve Angry Men with its all-male cast but unisex appeal. But if there's anything new about this Broadway premiere it's that the men in the audience, especially the gay men, seem to be the ones most taken with these Magnolias. At the second night critics' performance I attended, they seemed to eat up everything. The men responded to every zinger as if it were freshly minted. The evening's equivalent of a musical's show stopper came when Frances Sternhagen's Clairee tells the women how she had asked a local man who has gone public with his sexual orientation how he recognized other men to befriend and he replied with " all gay men have track lighting." The guffaws were so loud they drowned out several other lines.

In the light of the evangelical Christian movement's ever growing momentum and its effect on our body politic, the religious conversion of Annelle, the shop assistant whose troubled marriage makes her a natural for the born-again way of life. As Truvy tells it, Annelle had a choice of spending Mardi Grass weekend " going to a Bible weekend with her Sunday School Class or to New Orleans with me and two other sinners. She left Friday a pleasant, well-adjusted young lady and returned on Tuesday a Christion!" Truvy and the other women's healthy skepticism supports the author's note that cautions directors to let these women be seen as witty and intelligent rather than cartoons.

Unfortunately nothing about this incarnation of Mr. Harling's play shows it to be anything but a well-acted museum piece. Mr. Moore, whose main previous directing credit was the decidedly fresh little musical, Avenue Q has chosen to be more curator than innovator -- to paraphrase a poster on the wall of Anna Louizos's handsome beauty shop that states I'm a beautician, not a magician, he's more technician than magician. Thus the first act is treated like a great not-to-be- tampered with work of art as the decidedly better second act. A tune-up to conflate this into a better paced 90-minutes without intermission, might have gone a long way towards freshening up this mint julep.

The most flavorful part of the almost two and a half hour long evening comes at the top of the second act which is also the one that Frances Sternhagen comes close to stealing despite the ensemble's overall excellence. It is in the second act that Marsha Mason comes into her own as the de rigueur tender-hearted curmudgeon of this genre of smartly executed contrivance play. Thanks to the elegant Christine Ebersole's performance as M'Lynne, the second act's emotional thunderbolt finale still manages to hit home.

Since producers feel free to reprise past hits, I'll allow myself to rephrase my final comments for another golden oldie revival, On Golden Pond in which Magnolia's Clairee originated the leading lady role: Nice as it is to see Ms. Sternhagen and her able colleagues on stage, it would be better than nice to see them in a brand-new and more provocative play.

Written by Robert Harling
Directed by Jason Moore
Cast: Delta Burke (Truvy), Lily Rabe (Annelle), Frances Sternhagen (Clairee), Rebecca Gayheart (Shelby), Christine Ebersole (M'Lynn) and Marsha Mason (Ouiser). Steel Magnolias
Set Design: Anna Louizos
Costume Design: David Murin
Lighting Design: Howell Binkley
Sound Design: Ken Travis
Hair Design: Bobby Grayson
Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, including one fifteen minute intermission.
Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th, 212/239-6200
From 3/15/05; opening 4/04/05.
Tues through Sat @ 8:00PM, Wed & Sat @ 2:00PM Sun @ 3:00PM Tickets: $86.25, $46.75 Final performance July 31, 2005 at 3pm after 23 previews and 136 regular performances.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on April 6th press performance
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