Moonlight and Magnolias

By Ron Hutchinson
Performed by Ben Carlson, Robert Persichini, Tom Rooney, Jan Spidell
Directed by Gina Wilkinson
Grand Theatre, London
January 9 to 27, 2007
Reviewed by Mary Alderson

The “Making Of” makes its own show

The latest production at London’s Grand Theatre is riding the popular bandwagon of behind-the-scenes shows. Imagine you’re at home watching the DVD of Gone With The Wind, and you click on the section entitled The Making of ‘Gone With The Wind’. That’s what the play Moonlight and Magnolias is all about – how the movie version of Gone With The Wind came to be.

If we can believe Moonlight and Magnolias, it’s amazing that Gone With The Wind was ever even filmed, let alone becoming a popular hit movie and huge Oscar winner. Turning the best-selling novel into a film was fraught with problems.

As the play opens, it’s 1939 and producer David O. Selznick (Ben Carlson) has been very dissatisfied with the filming of Gone With The Wind. The screenplay has been written and re-written several times, and he has just fired the director. He calls on successful scriptwriter Ben Hecht (Tom Rooney) to start with a fresh screenplay, and pulls director Victor Fleming (Robert Persichini) off the set of The Wizard of Oz. There are some laughs when Fleming says he doesn’t mind leaving Oz; he’s fed up with drunken Munchkins anyway.

The big problem is immediately apparent – Hecht hasn’t read Margaret Mitchell’s popular novel, and since they need a script so they can resume filming in just one week, there is no time for him to read the thick book. Selznick and Fleming act out the scenes of the novel, as Hecht taps out the script on a typewriter. Selznick locks the door of the office, only allowing his receptionist Mrs. Poppenghul (Jane Spidell) in to bring them bananas and peanuts, which Selznick believes are brain food. As the week progresses, all four characters are sleep-deprived and punchy, creating the obvious potential for humour.

All four actors are well cast. The comedy comes from Carlson and Persichini’s re-enactments. Carlson is hilarious when he plays Vivian Leigh playing Scarlett O’Hara, fanning himself like a southern belle saying “fiddle-dee-dee” in his falsetto. Similarly, Persichini plays Fleming playing Melanie, on the floor in labour, giving birth as Atlanta falls around them. Persichini is reminiscent of Chris Farley as he jumps from role to role. Later all three men discuss the scene where Scarlett slaps Prissy, the slave who “don’t know nothing ‘bout birthin’ babies”. They decide if the slap should stay in, by acting it out in several different ways, eventually roughhousing in a crazy Three Stooges-like routine.

Hecht’s character is the more serious one – leading the discussion about slavery and prejudice, and comparing it to the racist encounters he and Selznick have as Jews. Hecht is also very sceptical about the success of the movie – he thinks Mitchell’s novel is a big soap opera and won’t translate to the big screen, even as he’s writing the screenplay.

Director Gina Wilkinson chose a great cast and has produced excellent chemistry among them. John Dinning has again created a wonderful set for Selznick’s office. He has the right balance of interesting art deco, with some tacky Hollywood glamour thrown in. Dinning was responsible for the outstanding set design in the recent Beauty and the Beast, as well as Trying and The Black Bonspiel of Wullie Macrimmon.

The only concern with this show is with the script itself. Some of the colloquialisms don’t ring true to 1939. Writer Ron Hutchinson uses too many of today’s phrases that aren’t realistic for the thirties, such as “don’t go there” when they didn’t want to discuss something. It is a little jarring to hear current slang when the characters and set just convinced us we have gone back in time 70 years.

In other places the script becomes too didactic for a comedy. The audience is hit over the head with the lesson being taught, instead of sliding the message discretely into the plot. And while for the most part, there is plenty of action with characters leaping and flouncing across the stage, in some places the script becomes bogged down with argumentative dialogue. Lengthy discussions are too slow and dragged out, preventing the plot from moving forward.

Unfortunately, the script for a show about scriptwriting just needs a little tweaking itself, to make a good show into a really great show.

Moonlight and Magnolias continues at the Grand Theatre in London until January 27. Tickets are available at the Grand box office at 672-8800 or 1-800-265-1593.

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