Theater Review: STEEL MAGNOLIAS (Palm Canyon Theater in Palm Springs)

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by Barry Schoenfeld on October 12, 2023

in Theater-Palm Springs (Coachella Valley),Theater-Regional


In Steel Magnolias at the Palm Canyon Theatre in Palm Springs, which opened last weekend, Judith Chapman as M’Lynn blows the roof off of the theater and insists you pay attention; her second act monologue and emotional outburst is just brilliant.

Chapman’s character takes almost the entire evening to build to this point, and spends much of the first act supporting others in the cast, tossing in grenades from the sideline as if she were Bette Davis in All About Eve. She is quiet, calculated and you might even be able to spot something coming, and about to burst from her marvelous character development. But the cast on the whole is sadly underwhelming.

Steel Magnolias, as most readers know, concerns a group of women in a small Louisiana town who regularly get together at Truvy’s beauty salon in her home, and talk about … stuff. First premiered in 1987 Off-Broadway, it was an immediate hit which ran for 1,126 performances. It was bought by Paramount for the 1989 film adaption with Shirley MacLaine and Julia Roberts, while Marsha Mason and Delta Burke headed up the 2005 Broadway revival (Elaine Stritch headed the cast of a 1990 ill-fated TV sitcom pilot). You can have the movie running in the background while you do other things, and still more or less follow the plot. The play has the same virtue. You don’t really have to use many brain cells to get the gist of what is going on. Still, the always revived comedy/tearjerker certainly has its virtues: Robert Harling’s dialogue is witty (“She thinks Sherlock Holmes is a sub-division”); the characters have enough depth to give actors something to chew on; and the story is sweet, shallow, and inoffensive. But if you go hoping to learn something new about the world, you are at the wrong show.

It is with with modest expectations that one goes into Artistic Director S.E. Layne’s Palm Canyon Theatre. In the past ten or so years I can recall some outstanding productions (The Addams Family comes to mind) along with some real clunkers. But last night’s production, set squarely in the 1980s by director Derik Shopinski, makes me wonder if Steel Magnolias should have been revived at all.

With such a demanding season of ten musicals in as many months, it’s almost a miracle that sets can be designed and built, and that the right costumes can be obtained. But it is a must that all of the actors at least know the material and don’t step on each other’s lines, especially the punchlines, such as “I love you as much as my luggage.” You need a cast that fleshes out this rather slow-moving — and at times very predictable — slice-of-life narrative. This was not the case last night.

Toby Griffin‘s simple set was a bit underdone with high school-level construction. Throwing up a Nagel print and borrowing some salon chairs does not a great set make. A single set play is cheap; this set was cheaper. JW Layne‘s lighting seemed to have just three positions – on, off and dim for scene changes.

However, Shopinkski’s costumes, with just a few exceptions, set just the right tone for the characters and the ’80s. It seemed as if the actresses were wearing their own clothes. As Clairee, Virginia Slack’s Act I scarlet-red pantsuit practically set the tone for her role as the Mayor’s rich widow. As Annelle, Georgia Smith‘s costumes changed often without much rhyme or reason, other than to show off her Act II pregnancy (and as often as she changed outfits, she seemed to change her character completely — and not in a good way).

In a play set in the Deep South, accents are just as important to set the mood. Most of the cast were fine, including Michele Davis as Ouiser, but the dialect from Erin Shull’s Shelby went in and out like the wind, and Denise Strand’s Truvy sounded like an impersonation of Carol Burnett in Mama’s Family.

Still, was Steel Magnolias worth reviving by Palm Canyon Theatre?

Yes, to remember why this play was a hit in the first place.
Yes, to return to the original characters in the play vs. the movie.
Yes, to feel the honest emotions in this story.
Yes, to watch Judith Chapman truly inhabit her character, and make most of us cry.

photos by Carlos Mendoza

Steel Magnolias
Palm Canyon Theater, 538 North Palm Canyon Drive
Thurs (Oct.12) at 7; Fri and Sat at 8; Sun at 2
ends on October 15, 2023
for tickets ($17-$32), call 760.323.5123 or visit Palm Canyon Theatre

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