‘Steel Magnolias’ at Way Off Broadway by Amanda Gunther

THREE AND A HALF STARS
Half of Chinquapin Parish would give their eye teeth to see a stage production of Steel Magnolias. With all the beauties in the beauty shop gossip going non-stop you will too! And The Way Off Broadway Dinner Theatre will give you your chance as it mounts the infamous play to start their 2013 theatre season. Directed by Jordan B. Stocksdale, the quintessential tale of friendship through hard times, this screen gem revived to the stage is a hearty dose of heartfelt good times and warms the spirit for this long wintery season.

Doubling as the Set Designer, Stocksdale constructs a simply beautiful set packed to the brim with shades of blush and bashful making the whole beauty shop look like it’s been hosed down with Pepto Bismal. Reflecting the garish style of the 80’s in southern Louisiana, the set is accented with bright teal and hairdo posters that give it an authentic feel. Stocksdale’s design carries the feeling of the setting throughout the duration of the production, very reminiscent of all things 80’s.

The cast of Way Off Broadway's 'Steel Magnolias.' Photo by Justin M. Kiska.

The cast of Way Off Broadway’s ‘Steel Magnolias.’ Photo by Justin M. Kiska.

Costume Designer Bill Kiska his a slightly more confusing approach to streamlining the feel of the 80’s in his design. While there are aspects of the era in some of the costumes there are others that feel out of place and modern, disrupting the natural feel of the show. Ouiser’s poppy purple sneakers and Truvy’s slenderizing black tank top and yoga style pants feel as if they came from a modern-day adaptation of the play whereas most of Annelle’s outfits and Shelby’s pink pastels fit right in with the set design. Kiska’s attention to detail is impressive; making sure that in the second act Truvy wears the shoes she all but steals from Clairee in act one.

The production’s biggest problem is its pacing. There are many points throughout the show where the dialogue drops out entirely and moments of great uncertain pause become the focus of the action on stage. It feels unnatural, creating the sense that the actors are waiting for someone to remember who’s line it is before continuing along. There are also moments when the actors jump the gun on their lines, often starting a sentence early and having to pause to let the another actor speak and then restart their line. This made it difficult for when the punch lines of jokes were caught up in the jumble and the humor was lost.

Stocksdale’s other major issue was the casting selection not believably looking their parts. His choice of actor for M’Lynn is not convincing as Shelby’s mother, as despite her wig she looks the same age as the girl playing her daughter. Ouiser and Clairee, the older of those in the beauty shop, look disproportionate almost the same age as everyone else. This made it difficult to accept the pre-constructed relationships of the play.

One of the biggest let-downs for me of the production was Ouiser (Genevieve Williams). Having the most aggravated character and many of the play’s most hilarious lines, seeing Williams fall flat in her portrayal dragged the production down. Many of her lines were delivered with a failed deadpan-sarcasm that ended up sounding like she was reading lines that she couldn’t remember. Williams also had problems with jumping over other actor’s lines, losing the humor in the punch lines of the jokes she delivered.

Playing opposite of Ouiser, the foil to her bitter character is the sweet and charming if a little bit aloof Clairee (Denise Lynn Hoover). While her accent wandered like the midnight train, her gooey cheery approach to the character more than makes up for it. Hoover does an impeccable job of creating gossip in the juiciest sense in the beauty shop scenes, delving into the rich scandalous nature of the rumor mill. She delivers one-lined zingers with a zesty punch and keeps the other actors on their toes when it comes to providing comic relief during the more tense moments.

M’Lynn (Alexandra Garcia Guyker) takes a while to grow into her character. While initially seeming quite dull, not really fulfilling the lines with emotion and in scenes coming off as frigid and snippy, she completely transforms to a dynamic performer late in the second act. Guyker’s passionate eruption during the final scene of the play is packed with powerful feelings that she displays at top notch; tears and vocal expression matching the words impeccably. Guyker’s relationship with Shelby appears strained at the best of times, but her performance is saved by her astonishing final moments on stage.

Truvy (Suzanna Fox) is a bright sharp character that delivers her lines with ease as if her character is an old friend. Fox fills out the high-teased wig with a familiarity that makes her character feel real. She believes in the advice that she’s chock full of and her catty nature at times really ups the ante on comic relief.

The stellar show stealers are the younger characters, Shelby (Melinda Renee Kinslow) and Annelle (Rachel Silvert). These youthful exuberant women shine in their own right, bringing deeply developed rich characters to the stage, carrying the bulk of the production’s success on their shoulders.

Silvert starts the production as nervous Nelly, wrapped up in the internal shyness of Annelle. Her accent is flawless even as she shifts into a wild child, the transformation visually stunning and vocally provocative. She maintains a consistency with the character’s physicality even after she changes again, this time a more demure and balanced version of her first two incarnations. 

Annelle (Rachel Silvert) and Clairee (Denise Lynn Hoover). Photo by Justin M. Kiska.

Annelle (Rachel Silvert) and Clairee (Denise Lynn Hoover). Photo by Justin M. Kiska.

Kinslow brings a wide understanding of her character’s depth to her performance, engaging herself physically, vocally and expressively with her emotions written all over her face. Her accent is flawless and she never drops it at any point during the production. She is a responsive and reactive performer, absorbing each moment as if it is the first time she’s lived it and delivering a fresh approach to each event. This is particularly true when she sees her new short hairdo for the first time, her wide eyes more than telling of her sudden shock. She showcases a wide range of emotions particularly during the more difficult moments with her mother but never becomes contrived in her efforts to show them off. Kinslow’s bubbly optimism is contagious, giving the audience hope even when things look grim.

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.

Steel Magnolias plays through March 9, 2013 at Way Off Broadway Dinner Theatre – 5 Willowdale Drive, in Frederick, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 662-6600.

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