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Unsinkable 'Magnolias' finally on Broadway

By
FREDERICK M. WINSHIP

NEW YORK, May 1 (UPI) -- "Steel Magnolias," which had its premiere off-Broadway 18 years ago, has finally arrived on Broadway with a powerhouse cast including veteran actress Frances Sternhagen after innumerable productions around the world and a popular all-star film version.

The play by Robert Harling about six indomitable Southern women in the setting of a beauty parlor is as near as the theater has ever come to challenging TV's soap opera format without drowning in suds. It doesn't pretend to be anything other than a heart-warming tear-jerker, but it has the advantage of semblance to an authentic slice of life.

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Billed as "Six beauties, one parlor," it's an old warhorse that holds up well, especially with a cast that also includes Delta Burke, Marsha Mason, Christine Ebersole, Rebecca Gayheart, and Broadway newcomer Lily Rabe. Sternhagen in the role of Clairee is alone worth a visit to the Lyceum Theater, but her fine performance is a matter of first among equals.

Clairee is the richest woman in the small Louisiana town of Chinquapin and a regular at the beauty parlor run by Truvy (Burke), a haven off limits to men where women can gossip, commiserate and gloat over coffee. A wiry elderly widow, Clairee as played by Tony Award-winner Sternhagen twinkles humorously and dispenses oracular wisdom in the form of wise-cracks. In short, she's adorable and a little flaky, buying the local radio station on a whim.

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Burke is bouncy and upbeat as Truvy, a modern-day Madame Recamier as hostess at a daily salon of compatible souls who bask in the warmth of her optimism. Even the least compatible of the lot, the crusty divorcee and man-hater Ouiser (Mason), is inspired to demonstrate a modicum of human kindness in response to Truvy's example.

Gayheart plays Shelby (Julia Roberts' role in the movie), the youngest of the parlor's denizens, an expectant mother who has a chronic, life-threatening health problem. Ebersole, another Tony Award winner, plays Shelby's worried but courageous mother, M'Lynn, and Rabe gives a completely touching and theatrically resourceful performance as Annelle, Truvy's helper who seems to have traded an abusive husband for a devout life as a born-again Christian.

The tragedy that saddens this circle of friends is well known to fans of the 1989 movie and will not be divulged here.

The playwright plays on the audiences' emotions with the sureness of a master organist pulling out all the right stops after he has established each member of the cast's strengths and vulnerabilities with just as sure a hand. "Steel Magnolia" is a classic of the old-fashioned genre of entertainment that sought an audience response of laughter through tears.

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Director Jason Moore, hot from his success as the director of "Avenue Q," deserves credit for not allowing any of his ladies to give an eccentric performance. It is a nicely balanced production that gives each actress a chance to shine without taking wattage away from the other performances, especially that of the debutante actress, Rabe. The play can't help but feel dated, lodged as it is in the 1980s, but it never feels fusty under Moore's guidance.

Anna Louizos' set should be acquired by the Smithsonian Institution as the very model of what a small town beauty parlor looked like in the heyday of permanent waves and Christmas decorations fashioned out of hair rollers. Howell Binkley's lighting is effective and so are the period costumes designed by David Murin in the bland style associated with Vogue pattern book fashions.

Fans of the play will be interested to know that playwright Harling is currently writing the screenplay for the motion picture version of TV's "Dallas" series. He still lives in Natchitoches, La., where family events inspired "Steel Magnolias."

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(Please send comments to nationaldesk@upi.com.)

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