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'Moonlight' shines

Rep's new show a hit about a hit.

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“Moonlight and Magnolias,” the Arkansas Repertory Theatre production of Ron Hutchinson’s comedy about the making of the 1939 classic, “Gone With the Wind,” is a lively mix of classic Hollywood legend and slapstick that will entertain fans of the famous film and others with equal aplomb.

On paper, “Moonlight and Magnolias” seems as unlikely a success as “Gone With the Wind” was when movie mogul David O. Selznick (played by Fredric Stone) purchased the film rights to Margaret Mitchell’s book of the same name for $50,000 in 1936. The sprawling epic about the Civil War-era South, with its idealized depiction of slave-owning plantations, Byzantine romantic entanglements and a downright unlikable heroine, was deemed by some as impossible to film.

Likewise, Hutchinson’s conceit — based on Hollywood legend — that locks three one-note characters in a room for a week to write a movie script for a film most in the audience will know by heart (leavened with liberal amounts of old-fashion slapstick and banana jokes) might seem a little too daring for its own good.

But frankly, you won’t give a damn. It’s hilarious. Everyone from “Gone With the Wind” obsessives to those with only a casual familiarity with the film will be entertained, as Selznick and director Victor Fleming (Joseph Graves), yanked off the set of “The Wizard of Oz,” improv the film from start to finish, with screenwriter Ben Hecht (Marc Carver) rewriting the script on the fly. Key scenes — the iconic opening sequence, O’Hara slapping a slave, Rhett’s famous final kiss-off — take shape before our eyes, with Selznick keeping the men awake for hours on end, fueling their scripting binge with peanuts, bananas and a desire to make one final, great Hollywood picture.

Carver, Stone and Graves rise above Hutchinson’s broad-strokes characterizations and deliver side-splitting turns. (Watch for Graves’ Kramer-esque pratfalls.) Even Alanna Hamill Newton is endearingly funny as Selznick’s harried secretary, despite little stage time.

“Moonlight” director and the Rep’s Producing Artistic Director Robert Hupp keeps the action humming on Mike Nichol’s nicely detailed set, which, along with a cool newspaper headline montage between the first two acts, effectively evokes that old Hollywood feel.

“Moonlight and Magnolias” continues through Sept. 24.

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