I Don’t Know Nuthin’ ‘Bout Birthin No Movie

Dum-dum-dum-dum. Dum-dum-dum-dum. If you didn’t recognize those notes (I type better than I sing), those were the opening bars to theme from Gone with the Wind, one of the classic American movies. But the movie almost wasn’t completed, and certainly wasn’t a guaranteed success. David O. Selznick, the producer, had paid $50,000 for the rights to the story (before it became popular), and had the difficulty of turning a 1,000+ page story into something filmable (it’s a problem that symied many—just look at the history of Harold Rome’s “Gone With The Wind-The Musical” or the later Trevor Nunn version). There was difficulty finding the right cast, and George Cukor took three weeks just to film the opening. The initial screenplay was the work of over a dozen famous writers. Faced with this mess, Selznick did what any producer would do: he shut down production for a week to rework everything.

Tthe story of what happened during that fateful week is what is told in the Ron Hutchinson’s play Moonlight and Magnolias, which we saw last night at The Colony Theatre in Burbank. Selznick has brought in Ben Hecht, a talented and prolific screenwriter to completely rewrite the screenplay of “Gone With The Wind”, and has yanked Victor Fleming off of “The Wizard of Oz” to help. Never mind the fact that Hecht has never read the book. Selznick and Fleming will act out the story, while Hecht writes. They lock themselves in Selznick’s office, living only on bananas and peanuts brought in by Selznick’s secretary, Miss Poppenghul, and go to work… What results is, on its surface, an incredibly funny play, where you have these two men acting out scenes from an already melodramatic three-hour movie (it makes one think of “The 39 Steps”). If the play was just manic expression of GTTW, it would be good.

But “Moonlight and Magnolias” is more than that. M&M is also an exploration of the roles of jews in Hollywood. Selznick is Jewish, and is thought of a Jew first, and American second (a common perception of Jews at the time—and how many Americans think of Muslims today). So is Hecht. Fleming isn’t. This comes out as a whole subtheme in the play: trying to succeed at something and make an imprint as a Jew. There is also the responsibility that Hecht feels as a Jew to do something socially meaningful—and GTTW, which glorifies the institution of slavery, and the behavior of a tramp and potential homewrecker who marries for revenge and not love—is not it. There are also the subthemes of Selznick trying to prove something to his father-in-law, Louis B. Mayer. There’s also the continuing fight of who makes a movie a success: is it the writer, who gives the story; the director, who translates that story into film, or the producer, who finds the story and the money to enable everyone to do their work. Are all three at the mercy of the audience, who can reject the best story and elevate drek to classic. These are all subthemes in this very very funny story.

So, we’ve now talked about the writing of the story. But a play is nothing without the actors to bring it to life. The ensemble for this production is excellent, demonstrating great comic timing and love for the story (and, as a bonus, they even tend to resemble the real people). As David Selznick, Roy Abramsohn protrays the drive and craziness that marks a successful producer. Battling him along the way is Matt Gottlieb as Ben Hecht. Gottlieb’s Hecht comes across as a weary but talented writer who wants to do something socially relevant… and GTTW isn’t it. As Fleming, Brendan Ford provides another counterbalance to Selznick: this time one who is willing to film anything, as long as he had a damn screenplay—he can fix any rough edges with the appropriate camera angles. Supporting these three crazies is Emily Eiden as Selznick’s secretary, who becomes increasingly exasperated as the play goes on. As a side note, there is an excellent article from LA Stage Blog on how the cast, and especially Eiden, brought life to these roles.
[All actors are members of æ Actors Equity ]

Of course, direction is important as well. Luckily, Andrew Barnicle is familiar with this property having directed it before, and works with these actors to make the timing perfect and the exasperation show. Comedy is hard, and farcical comedy is even harder–and Barnicle does it perfectly.

Turning to the technical: Bruce Goodrich scenic design recreates Selznick’s office in perfect period, down to the correct headlines on the issues of Variety strewn about and the correct pictures on the walls (credit for this likely goes also to MacAndME, who provided additional properties and set dressing). The costume design by Julie Keen is appropriately period. The lighting by Paulie Jenkins is simple but effective, and the sound design by Julie Ferrin is what a good sound design should be: unnoticable in its clarify. Ritz Gray is the Production Stage Manager, who gets the thankless job of cleaning up after this show, which destroys the set at every production (just imagine peanut shells and paper strewn everywhere).

Moonlight and Magnolias” continues at the Colony Theatre in snowy Burbank until March 6, 2011. Tickets are available through the Colony Box Office.

The Colony Theatre has announced their 2011-2012 season. They are being bold in these economic times, expanding to six shows: YEAR ZERO by Michael Golamco (June 1 – July 3, 2011), ON GOLDEN POND by Ernest Thompson (July 27 – August 28, 2011), SHOOTING STAR by Steven Dietz (September 14 – October 16, 2011), TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT by Graham Greene (November 9 – December 18, 2011), OLD WICKED SONGS by Jon Marans (February 1 – March 4, 2012), and DAMES AT SEA with book and lyrics by George Haimsohn and Robin Miller and music by Jim Wise (April 11 – May 13, 2012). Subscriptions are affordable with pricing between $120 and $210, depending on night and seats (opening nights are $234) [that’s as low as $20 a show, getting near movie prices]. Plus you can pay in two-or-three chunks, which we find helps cash flow. Information is available here.

Dining Notes: Last nights dinner was surprisingly good, especially considering its location: the Ikea Restaurant in the Ikea across the street from the theatre. Not only do you get great food, but you get to see stylish furniture!

Upcoming Theatre, Concerts, and Dance: March begins with a Noel Paul Stookey concert at McCabes on March 4. Saturday March 5 is the MRJ Regional Man of the Year dinner at TBH, and Sunday brings “Nunsensations” at the Lyric Theatre in Hollywood. Saturday March 12 sees us back at Van Nuys to see the other actress playing Eva Peron in Evita”, at Van Nuys High School. Sunday, March 13 is “The Cradle Will Rock” at the Blank Theatre. March 19 brings “Having It All” at the NoHo Arts Center. Lastly, March 26 brings “The Diary of Anne Frank” at Repertory East. April will bring the Renaissance Faire on the weekend of April 9. April 16 brings “The Producers” at Cabrillo Music Theatre. April 23rd, which is during Pesach, brings the last show of the current Colony season, “The All Night Strut” at the Colony Theatre. The last weekend of April is being held open (i.e., pending ticketing) for Brian Stokes Mitchell at the new Valley Performing Arts Center. May is just starting to shape up, with the first weekend being held for God of Carnage at the Ahmanson Theatre (pending Hottix) and Cabaret” at REP East on May 28.


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