BWW Review: MOONLIGHT AND MAGNOLIAS at EAGLE THEATRE
3 men, 5 days, peanuts, bananas, and Gone with the Wind? This odd assemblage is the foundation of Eagle Theatre's production of Moonlight and Magnolias, Ron Hutchinson's comedic play and behind-the scenes look into the making of the beloved film classic Gone with the Wind.
The year is 1939, and legendary producer David O. Selznick (played by Damon Bonetti) has shut down the production of his new epic Gone with the Wind, a film adaptation of Margaret Mitchell's novel. The screenplay, you see, just doesn't work. Selznick sends for screenwriter Ben Hecht (played by Bruce Graham), and pulls director Victor Fleming (played by Ernie Jewell) from the set of The Wizard of Oz. Summoning both to his office, Selznick locks the doors, closes the shades, and on a diet of bananas and peanuts, the three men labor for five days on a new screenplay to fit the bill. But, Selznick quickly discovers that Hecht who has been called to write the new script for the film has never read the book. So Selznick and Fleming hilariously reenact all 1037 pages of Mitchell's novel for Hecht to record, only occasionally getting interrupted by Miss Poppenghul, Selznick's receptionist (played by Hanna Gaffney) bringing the men more peanuts and bananas to snack on.
Hammonton's Eagle Theatre, South Jersey's only year-round professional Equity theatre, is dedicated to redefining regional theatre. Their productions are often immersive: appealing to all five senses, and bringing audience members into the world of the play from the moment they step through the front door. Since the launch of Eagle Theatre's Innovations Factory in 2015, the theatre has pulled out all the stops to make their productions sensually engaging, inventive and audience-centric. One does not simply SEE a show at The Eagle, one EXPERIENCES a show at The Eagle.
Eagle Theatre's Artistic Director and director of Moonlight and Magnolias Ted Wioncek III, as well as The Eagle's Producing Director Ed Corsi, do not disappoint with enveloping the audience into the glitz and glam of Old Hollywood for this production. The Eagle has rolled out the red carpet for this show. Literally! Under the Eagle Theatre's grand marquee, leading the way to the front doors of the theatre, is a red carpet with velvet ropes. However, the VIP treatment does not stop there. From the moment you walk through the theatre's front doors, The Eagle makes you feel like a star. While waiting to present your ticket stub for entry, a photographer is poised to take your picture and make you feel like a celebrity. The Eagle is posting these pictures of their audience members to the theatre's Facebook page.
David Selznick's character in the play says "movies are the only time machine ever invented," but it certainly feels like you are stepping back in time when you step into the theatre at The Eagle. Projections of Charlie Chaplain, The Wizard of Oz, and other old-timey movies are projected onto the ceiling of the house above the audience and the Sharrot Wine Lounge is decorated with headshots from Hollywood's Golden Age. Also in the house, desks with relics of vintage Hollywood sits amongst the rows of seats, and vendors selling popcorn walk through the aisles before the show. The salty smell and satisfying crunch of buttery popcorn feels nostalgic, like you are preparing to watch a movie. And you are missing out if you don't crunch on some kernels while you are watching the play or just admiring Ernie Jewell's gorgeous set design before the show begins.
Having watched Gone with the Wind at least half a dozen times in my life, I was able to understand and appreciate the nuanced allusions in Hutchinson's script. However, I don't believe it's necessary to know the novel or movie in order to enjoy this production. If you come into Moonlight and Magnolias without even a lick of knowledge about Gone with the Wind, well, you are still in for a treat. You would be in the same position as Hecht, and you can sit back and enjoy Bonetti and Jewell's hilarious reenactments of the "Spark Notes" of the novel. Though I should advise that this article (and the play itself) contains spoilers if you have never seen the legendary film.
Ron Hutchinson's play is a compelling and comedic insight into the creative process. It explores the importance of movies in culture as well as the meaning and philosophy of art. Perhaps best of all, it is based loosely on true-to-life events that occurred during the making of the Academy Award-wining film Gone with the Wind. The play mentions the most iconic moments of the movie including the opening scene, the ruins of Tara, Melanie giving birth, the vexing love triangle, and the infamous last lines of the movie "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a..." well you know.
Moonlight and Magnolias is satirical, and light-hearted. The stakes are high for Selznick who is depending on this movie being a hit, and there is dramatic irony in the way the play ends with the three men feeling like Gone with the Wind will be a dud (though history shows us the contrary). There is also a No Exit-esque feeling to this script. While Sarte's existential play features three people trapped in a room in Hell together, Hutchinson's script has a producer, screenwriter, and director locked in an office littered with peanut shells, banana peels and pages from various scraped versions of the screenplay. Selznick says "I know these aren't ideal conditions to work in." And the characters of Hecht and Fleming sure do make it seem like this is their own version of Hell.
Wioncek's cast for this production is fantastic. There is nice chemistry in the ensemble and all of the actors have great comedic timing. For Bonetti, Gaffney and Graham, Moonlight and Magnolias is their Eagle Theatre debut. And Hanna Gaffney as Miss Poppenghul, Selznick's nasally and lethargic receptionist, though not having as much stage time as her male cast members, practically steals the show at times with her cameo performance.
Wioncek's directing is nice with beautiful pictures, inspired transitions, and great pacing and usage of the space. My favorite moment in the play is when the men are trying to figure out "the slap" and Jewell playing Hollywood director Victor Fleming acts the part of Prissy, flailing around the stage proclaiming "I know I is a bad girl!" The three men hit each other around to figure out how Scarlett will slap the girl in the script, and their violence morphs into a silly bout of throwing bananas and peanuts.
Selznick says in the play that "movies are the biggest gamble there is!" but this production is no gamble for The Eagle. Hutchinson's clever script, combined with the amazing talent of The Eagle's cast, and Wioncek's engaging directing proves to be an incredibly fun and entertaining night of theatre.
If you haven't seen this fabulous production yet, fiddle-dee-dee! But there is still time to grab your tickets. After all, tomorrow is another day.
This Barrymore recommended production of Moonlight and Magnolias runs through April 29th at the Eagle Theatre in Hammonton, NJ. For more information about the show and to purchase tickets, please visit http://www.eagletheatre.org/moonlight-and-magnolias/
NOTE: Actual peanuts are used in this production. Eagle Theatre recommends that those with food allergies email the theatre to request seating in the back of the theatre. Also, Moonlight and Magnolias has a PG-13 rating due to some mild, adult language.
*Pictures from Eagle Theatre's Facebook page*