Crown Uptown’s revival of “Steel Magnolias,” Robert Harling’s 1987 celebration of the Southern women in his life and the steel beneath their delicate magnolia veneers, is an evening of joyous and satisfying entertainment.
It’s full of smiles, chuckles and even some out-right guffaws through Harling’s smart dialogue, such as “an ounce of pretention is worth a pound of manure.”
But it also has some heart-touching moments of conflict and tragedy that give it depth and weight. It rings true as it explores — and exposes — various relationships from friendship to marriage to parenthood. Directed with subtlety and affection by Matthew Rumsey, it achieves a cozy intimacy that welcomes us into the ladies’ inner circle to sit a spell and take a load off.
The feeling is enhanced by an elaborately detailed set designed by Emmy Award winner Gregory R. Crane with lighting by Dan Harmon and enough props from Hannah Huling — including a water heater — to look like a working beauty shop. It stretches the width of the stage and is pushed to the front to almost achieve theater in the round.
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Many are more familiar with the 1989 movie starring Sally Field, Dolly Parton and Julia Roberts than the play that inspired it. The main difference is that the play is about the women as they gather on Saturday mornings in a neighborhood beauty shop to gossip, share and support each other. The men in their lives (fleshed out as characters for the movie) are never seen but are talked about so vividly we know them well.
Patti Cooper, making a return to the stage after a couple of decades of teaching, choreographing and directing, plays M’Lynn, a strong-willed Louisiana woman who believes in putting her family ahead of herself, particularly her head-strong, newlywed daughter Shelby (Wichita State University theater major Ashley Lauren).
To the actresses’ credit (and director Rumsey’s), they don’t try to imitate Field or Roberts, who had the roles in the movie. They achieve their own characterizations with the same material.
Cooper lets us feel M’Lynn’s concerns and worries roiling beneath her calm surface. Her strength, but also her ultimate weakness, is that she is too much in control. Cooper finally lets her emotions fly, but never loses her dignity.
Lauren plays her daughter as a patient, loving but determined presence. She is willing to take a risk for happiness — in this case wanting to have a child even though doctors say her health is not up to it. Lauren plays her perky and beautiful but also smart.
Karen Robu, longtime powerhouse musical talent from Music Theatre of Wichita, takes a rare, non-musical turn as Truvy (the Parton role), the beauty shop owner. Robu is a delight with her over-the-top red hairdo and her grinning, good-hearted wisecrackery.
The other three roles are eccentrics providing various shades of comic relief. Veteran Jean Ann Cusick is Oiser, an earthy widow in overalls who pretends not to be interested in anybody. Stephanie Dennis, who recently was a hilarious harridan in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” at the Forum Theatre, does an about-face as high-society Clairee.
And Addie Barnhart, a Missouri State grad who has worked professionally across the country, is a scatterbrained scene-stealer as Annelle, a shy and awkward town newcomer with a deliciously gossipy past who becomes Truvy’s beauty shop assistant. Barnhart takes Annelle from caterpillar to butterfly — and then to a dive-bombing religious gadfly.
While the play is not musical, Rumsey uses snatches of tunes to underscore moods. It works much of the time, such as with a dark cacophony to put us on edge when the diabetic daughter suffers an attack or romantic strains under nostalgic reminiscences. But it becomes obtrusive (and loud) during moments like a mother-daughter argument. A little more balance and finesse would be nice.
If You Go
What: 1987 Robert Harling comedy-drama about bonding among a group of Southern women
Where: Crown Uptown Dinner Theatre, 3207 E. Douglas
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 6 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 11. Tickets (includes buffet): $32.95-$35.95 adults, $16.95 children. Show only: $18.09-$20.33.
For information: Call 316-612-7696 or visit http://www.crownuptown.com/.
Visit this story at Kansas.com/entertainment to view a gallery of “Steel Magnolias” photos and read our recent story about the show.