Saturday, June 2, 2012

REVIEW: Serendipity's "Steel Magnolias" a Real Flower

The Cut

The film “Steel Magnolias” was all the rage among women in 1989. It did well financially and featured a stellar ensemble cast. Julia Roberts won a Golden Globe and garnered an Oscar nom for her performance as Shelby. The film was adapted for the screen from the 1987 stage version by the playwright Robert Harling.

Somewhat of a chick flick, I’d never seen the film, nor the stage play up until this week. I watched the movie on Netflix before attending the Serendipity Players production on opening night, June 1. I didn’t like the film so much even though the ensemble cast was magnificent. I found it a downer—a bait and switch which presented itself first as a comedy and then, BAM, a depressing ending.

The play contains the same structure and story, but didn’t seem to manipulate me in the same way or leave me depressed. There wasn’t the feeling of bait and switch; it flowed together more naturally--the play’s dramatic turn didn’t seem quite so jarring. Also, it seems, it is better to be told about what happens outside the salon than to actually see it all (as in the movie). I liked the play very much. It is heartwarming, hilarious and healing.

In a nutshell, the story revolves around a group of female friends who congregate in the local beauty salon. The film introduces many more characters (including men) and locations that only convolute this simple tale of friendship through life’s thick and thin. The story is based on the playwright’s sister and her struggle with diabetes, but it’s much more than that.

The Style and Curl

 Dalene Young, Joni Moore, Alicia Marie Turvin, Emily Wells, and Fayra Teeters
The Serendipity production was marvelous—possibly the best stage performance I have ever seen in Vancouver. The play is a favorite with actresses. [Most plays are quite male-centric and male actors seem to be much harder to come by than the female kind.] And "Steel Magnolias," being such, is rather easy to cast. Much of this stunning cast, however, was, perhaps needlessly, imported from Portland. While I felt it could have been well cast with more local actresses, this ensemble was nearly ideal.

The Serendipity Playhouse is perfect for this kind of play. It is quite intimate (small) and seats only 40 to 50 patrons (depending upon the needs of the staging). There isn’t a bad seat in the house and it is easy to see the actor’s faces. It helped that the play was well lit—the lighting design was even and good overall, hampered only by the LED RGB PARs being too close to the back wall, which gave it an initially distracting luminescent effect.

The unit set was simple and effective and the three “scene changes” were nicely executed. The set wasn’t elaborate, but adequate. Familiar with beauty shops, growing up with my mom being a hairdresser, I did find some lack in the set's dressing. To really "sell" the salon location there needed to be a shampoo sink, a hair dryer and a few electrical hair care appliances. Otherwise, technically, the play was well done, though some of the costumes weren't right for some of the characters some of the time. 

The Gel

It would be hard to match, much less exceed, the stunning performances of Olympia Dukakas, Julia Roberts, Dolly Parton, Daryl Hannah and Shirley MaClaine given in the movie and, yet, many in this cast come close.

Jack Wells as Shelby in Steel Magnolias.
The Serendipity show stars Joni Moore as Truvy, Emily Wells as Annelle, Dalene Young as Clairee, Jack Wells as Shelby, Alicia Marie Turvin as M’Lynn and Fayra Teeters as Ouiser (pronounced “wheezer”). This ensemble had true chemistry.

Emily and Jack Wells especially, as well as Young, were marvelous. Perfect! Turvin’s characterization didn’t gel with me, at first, but her performance in Act II, scene two was divine—aptly played grippingly well. (Jack Wells didn't quite sell me on the insulin shock.)

Moore’s performance was really good, though not quite the right bubbly glue that Parton brought to the role. Teeters performance, although amusingly comedic, was too much over the top (melodramatic)—really good, but not matching the natural, realistic performances of the others. Accents were good all around though both Wells' were the best.

Tony Broom, as a guy, must have felt some challenges in directing an entire cast of women—because you’d have to understand them well to bring out the right emotions. It is good he had co-director Sharon Svec. Together they did a wonderful job.

The Comb and Tease

There are many other things to appreciate about this particular production—several lines of dialogue were updated to be more currently relevant and added a nice dimension to the show. A funny bit about Julia Roberts was an especially nice touch. I also found the POV of the production amazing; it was as if the fourth wall was the beauty shop’s mirrors. The characters often spoke to one another by “making eye contact” in these “mirrors.” The radio music and DJ (Gary Corbin) dialogue is perfect—especially the last musical number.

Were there problems? Yes, it was opening night. There was a smattering of little things like a crash in the dark during a scene load and the sound effects computer timing out to the Microsoft tone. These will be fixed. [And would it be that difficult or expensive to use real juice and tomatoes? And the LED PARs shouldn’t be on the dimmer.] The hair styles, I felt, should have been distinctly southern, and they were not.

I have only one real problem with the play (and it has nothing to do with this production): I think the playwright doesn’t like Christians—there are too many slams that did not go unnoticed by me. They aren't terribly mean spirited, but do seem meant to ridicule and undermine. (Okay, I admit, sometimes they are truthful and even funny.)

All in all, the Serendipity production was enjoyable entertainment. Warning: The curtain is at the late hour of 8 p.m. and then runs until nearly 10:45 p.m.

The show continues its run 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, June 2, 8, 9, 15, 16, 22 and 23 and 2 p.m. Sundays, June 10, 17 and 24. A “pay as you will” production will also be presented Thursday, June 21. All performances take place at The Serendipity Playhouse, 500 Washington St., Vancouver Wash. Tickets are $12 general admission and may be purchased online at, or reservations can be made by calling 360-834-3588 . Tickets may also available at the door. Doors open 30 minutes before the performance.

Review by Gregory E. Zschomler
Photos and photo show by Ruth Zschomler.

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