Robert Harling's "Steel Magnolias" achieved a long run Off-Broadway beginning in 1987 and was made into an all-star film that launched Julia Roberts' career. Harling's depiction of six women sharing life's joy and pain in a Louisiana hair salon is full of belly laughs and tear-jerking moments. These credentials make it a cinch for hit status in its current Broadway revival, particularly in a season chockfull of blasts from the past. While musicals offer reminiscences of Elvis, the Beach Boys, and Monty Python, dramas allow us to relive favorite films (this one and "On Golden Pond") and TV shows.
Delta Burke, the sassy Suzanne from "Designing Women," is Truvy, the sassy beauty-shop owner. Rebecca Gayheart, a former regular on "Beverly Hills 90210," enacts the tragic Shelby, the role played by Roberts in the film. Jason Moore ("Avenue Q") directs the play as if it were an episode of "The Golden Girls," with lines delivered like jokes and reactions played up to get even more giggles. Even Anna Louizos' set is tricked up for laughs, with an excess of Christmas decorations sprouting from the ceiling. The audience gratefully obliges by guffawing and sniffling on cue.
The cast, laden with recognizable and semiknown names, is a mixed bag. The reliable Frances Sternhagen avoids broadness as the sprightly former mayor's wife, Clairee. Lily Rabe wisely doesn't overplay Annelle, Truvy's slightly goofy assistant. Gayheart displays warmth as Shelby. Burke's Truvy has glimmerings of character development, but she overly depends on snappy sitcom line readings. Christine Ebersole races through her role of M'Lynn, Shelby's mother, missing grace notes of sorrow. Marsha Mason dwells on Ouiser's sourness. The original Off-Broadway production, directed by Pamela Berlin, replicated a group of real women in real situations. This enlarged version retains Harling's affectionate portraiture, but it's as overblown as a pouffy hairdo.