Wednesday, May 23, 2012

REVIEW: ‘Moonlight and Magnolias’ at Golden Apple Dinner Theatre in Sarasota

It’s unlikely the screenplay for “Gone with the Wind,” the longest film to ever win the best picture Oscar, took a mere five days to write.

But that’s the brilliant conceit of Ron Hutchinson’s not always brilliant comedy, “Moonlight and Magnolias,” originally produced in New York in 2005 and currently playing at the Golden Apple Dinner Theatre.

The first production by the four-decade-old Sarasota company’s new non-profit organization, PLATO, the play elicits laughs and offers juicy, albeit ancient, Hollywood gossip.

It sags, though, in the third and final act under the weight of ill-fitting sermonizing and lack of suspense.

The story starts with movie mogul David O. Selznick (Chris Caswell) shutting down production of the costly film adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s mega-selling novel “Gone with the Wind.”

Selznick fires director and best friend George Cukor, hires Victor Fleming (Ryan Kimball Fitts) away from “The Wizard of Oz” but still needs a satisfying script.

Enter Ben Hecht (B.J. Wilkes), at a high price, to crank out a new screenplay although the great writer has never read more than page one of the book.

Selznick locks himself, Fleming and Hecht in his office, allowing them to only eat the peanuts and bananas he calls “brain food.”

Five days and a floor covered in crumpled paper and broken shells later, the three men emerge with the screenplay for one of the most beloved and commercially successful movies of all time.

Caswell endears himself to the audience as the producer determined to complete his magnum opus, mostly so he doesn’t disappoint his father-in-law, former boss and financial partner Louis B. Mayer.

Wilkes confidently sells Hecht’s wit, pompousness and disdain for Hollywood while Fitts brings much-needed fun to his portrayal of Fleming. Alana Opie makes the most of her limited role as overworked assistant Miss Poppenghul.

Director Carol Kleinberg, the former director of the Banyan Theater Company serving as associate director for PLATO, keeps the pace appropriately speedy. The big laughs largely come from Selznick and Fleming performing key scenes for Hecht to write. They are rife with slapstick, which Kleinberg stages extremely well.

Michael Newtown-Brown’s set design shows Selznick’s office hilariously declining into a first-rate mess while Jared Walker’s costumes effortlessly put the characters and in late 1930s Hollywood.

—Photo: Chris Caswell as David O. Selznick, Ryan Fitts as Victor Fleming and BJ Wilkes as Ben Hecht in PLATO's production of "Moonlight and Magnolias." Credit Donna DesIsles/PLATO.

Details: Through July 1, Golden Apple Dinner Theatre, 25 N. Pineapple Ave., Sarasota. Tickets: $27  (summer menu will be available for purchase separately). Information: 941-366-5454 or

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