(L to R) April Poland, Arika Matoba, Melanie Hampton, and Cas Pruitt in Taproot Theatre's 'Steel Magnolias'. Photo by Robert Wade.

In Two ‘80s Theatrical Creations, Strong Women and Big Hair

The then-modern Steel Magnolias (at Taproot Theatre, through 2/29) and ’60s-set Beehive (at Tacoma Musical Playhouse, through 2/16) center strong female characters, from a small-town salon to world-class stages. 

 

When it opens up, Steel Magnolias has all the makings of a puff piece. A beauty salon, an old-timer, and a hesitant new girl. Gossip and meddling galore. And important wisdom, dished out by the hairspray can. (“There is no such thing as natural beauty…. Remember that or we’ll both be out of a job.”)

But it quickly gets heftier — death and marriage, sickness and health, love and abandonment, mothering and daughtering. And the salon isn’t just a place for the town’s latest busy-body news; its a place for the town’s busy-bodies to support one another through their latest — in joy and in grief.

Taproot Theatre’s current run of the Robert Harling play, directed by Marianne Savell, feels slow, like a lazy Southern spring day. But its characters are sharp and smartly acted: salon proprietor Truvy (Casi Pruitt) triages town problems and personalities; Clairee (Marlette Buchanan) boasts the confidence of the town’s perennial first lady; bride-to-be Shelby (Melanie Hampton) and her mom M’Lynn (April Poland) are intertwined enough to be forever at odds, especially on Shelby’s wedding day; Ouiser (Kim Morris) is hopping mad about something (today, it’s the neighbor’s pest control) just about anywhere she goes; and newcomer Annelle (Arika Matoba) has an endearing cluelessness and a past to run from. At Truvy’s, the group is equal parts family dinner table, town council, and support group.

As M’Lynn muses, “Men are supposed to be made of steel or something.” But in this play, the men — though not absent, exactly — are never seen, nor heard from. The women are both the beauty and the strength; the steel magnolias.

Meanwhile, in the south end, Tacoma Musical Playhouse runs a product of the ‘80s that’s a flashback to the female crooners and rockers of the ‘60s: Beehive (by Larry Gallagher, directed by Harry Turpin), a jukebox musical of sorts that’s essentially a combined mini-retrospective of Janis Joplin, Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, The Supremes, and more.

Kataka (Kat) Corn and the cast of ‘Beehive’ at Tacoma Musical Playhouse. Photo courtesy of TMP.

It’s all rolled up into a minimal storyline, with the two acts dividing it into two halves: the first, where the women portrayed didn’t have much voice except their song; and the second, where the action touches on political unrest, the civil rights movement, women’s liberation, and Woodstock.

But was the first half intentionally designed as lofi ‘60s TV for contrast, or merely anemic mic and sound design, as it seemed? Whatever the intention, it felt too guided tour-esque. The low energy of the first act did provide a meaningful contrast with the awakening of the more vibrant second half; but it was hard to rock out to.

A highlight throughout is Kataka (Kat) Corn (Gypsy Rose Lee Award-nominated for their tremendous performance in ArtsWest’s Head Over Heels), whose energy and vocals are standouts both when fronting the act (as Tina Turner) and in background roles. The band, set design, and costume and hair design (excepting Tina’s too-muted hair and costume design) all serve the production well.

TMP’s next production, in its family-oriented line, also centers female voices: Junie B. Jones: The Musical runs 2/22-3/1; info here.


Steel Magnolias runs through 2/29 at Taproot Theatre in Greenwood. Tickets up to $50, available hereAccessibility notes: restrooms are gendered and multi-stall. First-level theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible (balcony level is not).

Beehive runs through 2/16 at Tacoma Musical Playhouse in western Tacoma. Tickets up to $31, available hereAccessibility notes: restrooms are gendered and multi-stall. Theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible (limited accessible seating; reserve ahead).