Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Steeling from the Universe - STEEL MAGNOLIAS benefit performance at Mountain View High School

,Tregoney Shepherd, Melody Stuart, Kelli James,
Lana Shumway and Joy Bingham Strimple
by Jennifer Haaland

Jere Van Patten knows. The universe conspires to do good, meaningful things. On this occasion, his simple, earnest Facebook plea five months ago yielded him a benefit production of Steel Magnolias this weekend packed with Broadway, Equity actors and loaded with heart.

He said out loud last October to no one and everyone, "Dear peoples of the Facebook: I really really really want to direct Steel Magnolias... Let's make this happen, mkay? Thanks, bye."

And Broadway's first U.S. Eponine, now Valley resident Kelli James said, "mkay!"  Along with hometown Mesa and Apache Junction ladies--currently Broadway actors--Tregoney Shepherd and Beka Burnham, the universe kept converging.  Heavy-hitting creators who make the Valley's arts shine with their administrative roles and AriZoni awards--the likes of Lana Shumway, Melody Stuart, Joy Bingham Strimple, Jessie Jo Pauley and a professional, supervising crew-- joined the growing galaxy of talent, too.

A tightly woven excellent piece of drama, the 1987 Robert Harling stage play ramped up its popularity a couple years later with Oscar nominations and a cast that included Julia Roberts, Sally Field and Shirley Maclaine. The Lousiana story takes place in a beauty salon while the audience bears witness to how each of five  women's tough-as-nails exteriors fall away in one another's company to expose the delicate griefs and challenges they bare only to one another.

Opening night proved it. This stellar convergence changed people and sparked synapses that made the crowd's self-conscious-free laughter and open weeping as natural as the ladies who seemed to effortlessly inhabit the characters on stage.

James as salon owner Truvy carried the show with a Southern hospitality and intuitive sensitivity that was bigger than her 80s hair. Shepherd's grace and surly wisdom brought layers to Clairee's wealthy, austere role.  Her willingness to sacrifice one of their friends in order to lighten the group's wrenching sadness earned the biggest laughter of the night.

Strimple's irrascible Ouiser was somehow more lovable the crankier she became.  Stuart's M'Lynn carried a loving mother's fear disguised as nagging with palpable tension.  Shumway's wayward Annelle had just enough uncertainty in her to have us doubt the religious devotion she so dearly wanted to embrace.

How Pauley stepped into Burnham's role for the Friday performance as Shelby with just a few hours notice is a miracle secret the universe is holding hostage. But how she shone! Van Patten and his team invited people back for pennies if they wanted to see Burnham and compare how the two individual young stars changed the ensemble's Magnolias dynamic.

But the universe conspiring is just a small piece of what Van Patten relies on.  He is a teacher, a talent and a fierce worker, too.

"The kids are 'teching' this show and they built the set alongside professionals," Van Patten said in an interview before the lights dimmed Friday night.  "And all my professional actors and creative crew provided different master classes for our Mountain View students.  They saw real world examples from inside the industry of what they've learned in class from me."

"Art changes lives," Van Patten maintained.  "It sure changed mine."

When dedicated artistic souls place their fate in the hands of a provident universe, Van Patten knows.  As long as we're willing to roll up our sleeves and help blaze new constellation pathways, galactic art will continue to shimmer and guide us.

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