The Raleigh theatrical landscape is extraordinarily diverse for the continuance of 2012 and into 2013. Companies are pushing their boundaries, enriching their core audiences (while also working to broaden their base and encourage new attendees to purchase a ticket), and enticing new talent to tread their boards. An example of this departure from a theater’s norm is the current production of Robert Harling’s Southern classic, Steel Magnolias, presented by the North Carolina Theatre now through April 29th at the A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater.
Steel Magnolias marks the first time the North Carolina Theatre has solely produced a non-musical. It’s a refreshing change-of-pace to see a company known primarily as a presenter of big, flashy musicals, try their hand at something new. And for the most part, they are successful in this, their maiden voyage with a straight play, due in large part to the skilled direction of Eric Woodall, and the powerhouse performance of Beth Leavel as the matriarch, M’Lynn. (Both Leavel and Woodall are North Carolina natives, who now have professional theater careers in New York City.)
It should also be noted that the six-women cast of Steel Magnolias have a very difficult task ahead of them. It’s a daunting endeavor to stage a work like Magnolias. It is not daunting, because the material itself is a trek to achieve — this isn’t O’Neill or Miller or Churchill we’re talking about. It is daunting in that the 1989 film version of the play (also penned by Mr. Harling) is such a cult phenomenon.
How do actors live up to the image of the characters that we have ingrained in our minds? Filling the roles made famous by Dolly Parton (Truvy), Sally Field (M’Lynn), Olympia Dukakis (Clairee), Shirley MacLaine (Ouiser), Daryl Hannah (Annelle), and Julia Roberts (Shelby) can be an intimidating task for an actor. You want to be honest to the character as it’s written, and work to make the character your own, and not an imitation of the movie. And overall, the women the current NCT presentation do a fine job of this.
Jenn Colella’s Truvy harkens, almost as homage, to Ms. Parton. Her lines are crisp and shot like ammunition through barely parted lips. She and Madeline Chloe Taylor‘s Annelle complement each other well in personality and presence. Annelle is a difficult character — perhaps one of the most difficult in the show, because her meekness and personal journey can make the character come across as weak. Thankfully, Ms. Taylor lets Annelle really fight and struggle through her arc, though her grounding was a little uneven, especially when sharing the stage with the full group. However, both ladies show exemplary work when it comes to their characters’ profession. I’m not sure how much was wig magic devised by designer Patricia DelSordo, or how much was the dexterity and skill of Ms. Colella and Ms. Taylor, but these two women turned out some beautiful hair in real time.
Anne Horak’s Shelby had a bit too much doe-eyed innocence for me; the true strength and fervor of Shelby’s want to live a normal life and have children, despite her severe diabetes diagnosis, push her into fragile territory, and at times Horak could have used a bit more fire. Clairee (Darrie Lawrence) and Ouiser (Diane J. Findlay) are two neighborhood frequenters of Truvy’s beauty salon, and Ms. Lawrence and Ms. Findlay give solid supporting performances. Graced with some of the funniest lines the script has to offer (and that’s saying something), these two seasoned actresses let them land truthfully, without calling attention to their significance in the memory of those of us who love the movie.
|Beth Leavel as M’Lynn||Anne Horak as Shelby||Jenn Colella as Truvy|
|Diane J. Findlay as Ouiser||Darrie Lawrence as Clairee||Madeline Chloe Taylor as Annelle|
Beth Leavel’s M’Lynn was a wonder to watch. Ms. Leavel’s ease and connection on stage was electric. In the film, M’Lynn’s big breakdown moment is one of cinematic infamy, a frazzled Sally Field racing through emotions in a cemetery, tipping the emotional scale towards a territory nearly too big for film to handle — but we love it all the same. On stage, too big can be a set-up for dismal failure; but Ms. Leavel handled the moment with poise and deep sorrow, wrenched and clenched, pained beyond belief but struggling so actively to remain together. It was one of the most beautiful performances I’ve seen in recent memory.
Set designer Chris Bernier and scenic artist Eileen Tack constructed a wonderful beauty salon for the characters to inhabit. A working sink and a partially visible work room area towards the back helped add realism, along with various knick-knacks and homey items throughout. However, the whole shop did seem a bit large to have had a previous life as a carport (as noted by Truvy), but I suppose allowances must be made when staging an intimate piece in a larger venue.
Ann M. Bruskiewitz’s costumes really supported the characters: Shelby’s love of pink was exemplified in every outfit she had on; and Truvy sported textured tops and bold leggings, with some animal print thrown in for good measure.
Most fascinating of all was how this stage production almost carries with it an air of Rocky Horror in that, within five minutes of the show starting, audience members were saying lines along with the actors. And who can blame them? “You know I love you more than my luggage.” “The only reason people are nice to me is because I have more money than God.” “Don’t talk about me like I’m not here.” “If you don’t have anything nice to say about anybody, come sit by me.” These are fantastic one-liners and phrases that have etched their way into the vernacular of many, and those are just examples of a mere few. The script is packed with them. And maybe that’s a reason for doing this show: giving your actresses a chance to really make something their own, while still allowing the success of the film to help wrap your audience into your world.
All in all, Steel Magnolias is a homerun. I hope the North Carolina Theatre will continue to stretch their own limits, and try their hand at new ventures. Keep your audience on their toes. As Ouiser says, “I don’t see plays because I can nap at home for free.” Give them a reason to stay awake.
SECOND OPINION: April 25th Durham, NC Independent Weekly review by Tom Elrod (who awards this show 3.5 stars out of 5): http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/nc-theatres-steel-magnolias-a-classic-weepie-about-relationships/Content?oid=3054705; and April 15th Raleigh, NC News & Observer preview by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/2012/04/15/1998840/steel-magnolias-brings-broadway.html. (Note: To read Triangle Arts & Entertainment’s online version of the April 20th Triangle Theater Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2012/04/tony-winner-beth-leavel-will-star-as-mlynn-in-ncts-gala-presentation-of-steel-magnolias/.)
The North Carolina Theatre presents STEEL MAGNOLIAS, starring Beth Leavel, at 7:30 p.m. April 25-27, and 2 and 7:30 p.m. April 28 and 29 in the A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater in the Progress Energy Center, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27601.
TICKETS: $64.25-$79.75 (including fees).
NCT Box Office: 919-831-6941, ext.6944.
Ticketmaster: 800-745-3000 or http://www.ticketmaster.com/venueartist/115202/1587720.
GROUP RATES (10+ tickets): 919-831-6941 ext. 5204, or http://nctheatre.com/tickets/group-sales.
SHOW: http://nctheatre.com/shows/steel-magnolias. SEASON: http://nctheatre.com/2012-shows.
BLOG (Stage Notes): http://www.nctheatre.com/stage-notes.
NOTE: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh (http://www.artsaccessinc.org/) will audio describe the 2 p.m. April 28th performance.
The Play: http://www.dramatists.com/cgi-bin/db/single.asp?key=1063 (Dramatists Play Service, Inc.), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steel_Magnolias_(play) (Wikipedia), and http://www.lortel.org/ (Internet Off-Broadway Database).
The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
The Film: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steel_Magnolias (Wikipedia) and http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0098384/ (Internet Movie Database).
The Playwright: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Harling_(writer) (Wikipedia).
The Director: http://americantheatrewing.org/biography/detail/eric_woodall (American Theatre Wing) and http://www.nctheatre.com/stage-notes/entry/meet-the-director-eric-woodall (North Carolina Theatre).
Beth Leavel: http://www.bethleavel.com/ (official website), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beth_Leavel (Wikipedia), and http://www.ibdb.com/person.php?id=70613 (Internet Broadway Database).
Jesse R. Gephart is a Raleigh, NC actor, director, and theater and music critic. This review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review. To start your FREE subscription to this newsletter, e-mail RobertM748@aol.com and type SUBSCRIBE TTR in the Subject: line.
To read all of Jesse R. Gephart’s Triangle Theater Review reviews online at Triangle Arts & Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/jesse-r-gephart/.