On Theater: 'Moonlight & Magnolias' is best show of the year

You might not want to eat a hot dog after seeing how they're made, but watching "Moonlight & Magnolias" at the Huntington Beach Playhouse should produce the opposite effect — you'll be eager to revisit "Gone With the Wind."

The marathon script-writing session for the movie classic in producer David O. Selznick's office back in February of 1939 — with three Hollywood giants butting heads — is hilariously reimagined in playwright Ron Hutchinson's gleefully entertaining and often sharply satirizing account that shakes some of the trappings off Tinseltown.

The facts, as we know them, are these: Selznick, fearful of bombing at the box office with the movie version of everyone's favorite novel, summoned newspaperman Ben Hecht to his office to rewrite the script and pulled director Victor Fleming off "The Wizard of Oz" to lend his support. They reportedly subsisted on a weeklong diet of bananas and peanuts.

Clashing egos and opinions might have been enough raw material for a killer script, but Hutchinson added some social issues, namely the status of Jews (Selznick and Hecht among them) in the Hollywood of 1939 and the sensitive race card (the scene calling for Scarlett O'Hara to slap the black slave girl Prissy takes a good 20 minutes to iron out).

Director Gigi Fusco Meese has taken these intriguing elements and fashioned a production that sizzles both with acerbic wit and good old-fashioned slapstick comedy. It assumes the audience's familiarity with "Gone With the Wind" and even with some of the movie's attendant issues (Selznick's rivalry with his father-in-law, studio titan Louis B. Mayer; Fleming's roughshod directing style; Hecht's social activism).

Superior performances are demanded for such a play, and the Huntington Beach production doesn't stint in this regard. The show's centerpiece is Bob Fetes, who renders a superb portrayal of Selznick, a diminutive dynamo who virtually wills "Gone With the Wind" into existence. Fetes wades into this Napoleonic role with both feet. You won't see a finer performance on a community theater stage this year.

Cort Huckabone drips with comedic sarcasm as Hecht, the brilliant writer who hasn't read the novel "Gone With the Wind" (to add further authenticity, Huckabone, according to his director, hasn't seen the movie, either). His Hecht is the conscience of the trio, repeatedly thrusting the Jewish issues at Selznick and jabbing Fleming by reminding the director that he once was a studio driver.

As the blunt-spoken Fleming, Michael Turner cuts a convincing swath, though he turns in a somewhat uneven interpretation, occasionally hesitant where he should command the sequence. More Fleming machismo is required here.

Spicing the show and heightening the comedy is Norma Jean as Selznick's harried secretary Miss Poppenghul, whose dialogue consists mainly of "Yes, Mr. Selznick" and who pops in and out of the office at appropriate moments.

Andrew Otereo's studio office inner sanctum setting works well for the show, as do his period costumes. Jon Hyrkas' lighting is effective, particularly in the show's final moment.

"Gone With the Wind" may have passed its 70th birthday, but its impact is still with us. "Moonlight & Magnolias" gleefully blows the dust off this celluloid treasure in a screamingly funny Huntington Beach Playhouse production.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Independent.

If You Go

What: "Moonlight & Magnolias"

Who: Huntington Beach Playhouse

Where: Library Theater, 7111 Talbert Ave., Huntington Beach

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays until Sept. 5

Cost: $18 to $20 (students $5 Wednesdays and Thursdays)

Call: (714) 375-0696

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