At midseason, the valiant Paper Mill Playhouse continues its desperate search for patrons and subscribers to rescue the financially threatened theater with an engaging revival of “Steel Magnolias,” Robert Harling’s 1987 soft-hearted comedy that journeyed from Off Broadway to the bigscreen and ultimately to Broadway in a commercially disappointing revival three years ago. On the Millburn stage, a keen ensemble swaps gossipy barbs with the kind of targeted comic timing of a TV sitcom.
Among those gathered in a small Louisiana beauty shop is well-heeled Clairee Belcher, a widowed socialite played with polished reserve by Kelly Bishop, the original Sheila of “A Chorus Line.” As irascible curmudgeon Ouiser Boudreaux (“I’m not crazy, just in a bad mood for 40 years”), Beth Fowler hits the mark, balancing grumpiness with crusty humor and a misunderstood hidden warmth.
Shelby, the sweet Southern belle and diabetic young bride, is played by a pert Kelly Sullivan with a bright, appealing edge, while Monique Fowler essays Shelby’s mother with the right notes of maternal concern. In the play’s final moments, she offers a touching display of anguish and grief.
Charlotte Booker’s genial salon owner tosses off some of the playwright’s most pungent barbs with bull’s-eye marksmanship. But as born-again Christian Annelle, Kate Wetherhead adds a none-too-convincing, mousy turn with a series of revelations that offer little surprise. The tragicomedy is all very tidy.
Karen Carpenter has staged the small-town saga by accenting the humor and softening the punch of the finale. The costumes are appropriately bland for the period. Hugh Landwehr’s set offers tacky seasonal change with a salon that appears a bit too cluttered on the expansive Paper Mill stage. Jeff Croiter’s sharp lighting design may serve the action well, once the cues are better defined.