A legendary & mostly true screenwriting miracle in the hilarious Moonlight & Magnolias

Martin Buote, Rob Candy & Ryan Bannon. Mural by Elaine Freedman. Lighting design by Dustin Woods-Turner. Costumes by Lisha Mohan. Photo by Graeme Hay.

 

The Village Players presents Moonlight and Magnolias, the mostly true story of how the final screenplay for Gone with the Wind was written—the 80th anniversary of the iconic film’s release is later this year, on December 15. Written by Ron Hutchison and directed by Michael Hiller, the play follows the hilarious crazy miracle of the writing process, with producer David O. Selznick, director Victor Fleming and writer Ben Hecht holed up in Selznick’s office, under the gun to re-write the script and get production back up and running.

After clearing the major hurdles of finding his Scarlett O’Hara and shooting the burning of Atlanta, Selznick (Martin Buote) has put the brakes on production. He’s got multiple versions of the script, and he’s not happy with any of them. Intending to use bits and pieces from these scripts, along with dialogue from Margaret Mitchell’s book, he calls in screenwriter/script doctor Ben Hecht (Ryan Bannon) and pulls director Victor Fleming (Rob Candy) off of The Wizard of Oz to help him conjure a Hollywood miracle and re-write the script in five days. Selznick’s career is on the line, father-in-law Louis B. Mayer is breathing down his neck, and Vivien Leigh is getting antsy about the break in shooting—and Hecht hasn’t read the book!

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Ryan Bannon, Martin Buote & Rob Candy. Mural by Elaine Freedman. Lighting design by Dustin Woods-Turner. Costumes by Lisha Mohan. Photo by Graeme Hay.

Selznick locks the three of them in his office and, with the assistance of his secretary Miss Poppenghul (Céline Gunton), they live on bananas and peanuts* as Selznick and Fleming act out scenes from the book while Hecht types them out. Hilarity, doubt and anger ensue, complete with bickering over content, Fleming and Hecht sniping at each other, Hecht calling out the insanity of trying to make slave owners likeable—not to mention the systemic anti-Semitism of American society—with Selznick desperate to keep things on track, the clock ticking as he loses money with production on hold. Devolving into a hallucinatory, exhausted mess, the three men crawl to the finish line of the final scene. Then another argument erupts over the ending.

Great work from the cast in this zany, improbable tale—funny ‘cuz it’s true (mostly). Buote gives a passionate performance as Selznick, nicely balancing drive, determination and desperation. This is a life and death situation for the producer; and he’s dedicated years of his life to the project-determined to stay true to Mitchell’s book, despite all the naysaying. Candy makes a likeable cad as the pompous, ambitious Fleming, who’s delighted to be released from babysitting the grossly misbehaved munchkins on The Wizard of Oz. Together, Buote (Scarlett) and Candy (Ashley, Melanie and Prissy) do hilarious characterizations as they act out Gone with the Wind. Bannon’s the perfect devil’s advocate as the talented smart ass Hecht; the social conscience in the room, Hecht isn’t comfortable normalizing racism in this movie. Possessing a deep sense of social awareness, Hecht calls out Selznick, a fellow Jew, on the parallels of systemic oppression. All nicely supported by Gunton’s perky, intrepid and dedicated Miss Poppenghul—who, while happy to cater to her boss’s every whim without complaint, reveals her shock and disdain at the news of an incident of abusive behaviour perpetrated by Fleming.

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Céline Gunton & Rob Candy. Mural by Elaine Freedman. Lighting design by Dustin Woods-Turner. Costumes by Lisha Mohan. Photo by Graeme Hay.

The lengths to which storytellers will go to get the story right, despite all the odds—risking personal and professional failure to see a project through to its completion, without compromise or apology. A legendary tale behind a legendary film—and the small cast of creative characters behind the scenes.

With big shouts to the small army of Village Playhouse volunteers who worked behind the scenes to put this production of Moonlight and Magnolias on the stage, featuring stage manager Margot Devlin at the helm, keeping the show up and running from the booth.

Moonlight and Magnolias continues at the Village Playhouse to February 2; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416-767-7702.

*Mindful of peanut allergies, the production uses fake plastic peanuts.

The irrepressible Marie Dressler’s life, love & career in Alumnae Theatre’s delightful, entertaining Queen Marie

Naomi Peltz, Katherine Cappallacci, Siena Dolinski & Seira Saeki. Photo by Bruce Peters.

 

Alumnae Theatre Company closes its 100th anniversary season—with heart, moxie and rip roaring good fun— with Queen Marie, a musical by Shirley Barrie, directed by Rosemary Doyle, with music direction by Paul Comeau and choreography by Adam Martino.

Queen Marie is a biographical musical about Canadian-born 1930s Hollywood star actress/comedienne Marie Dressler. Director Doyle takes us to the vaudeville stage, complete with proscenium arch, a live band on one side and stall seating on the other. Using minimal set pieces, projected images up centre present show posters and images of various locations as we travel through Dressler’s storied life and career.

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Catherine Ratusny & Tess Keery. Photo by Bruce Peters.

Born Leila Koerber in Cobourg, Ontario, we witness Dressler being bitten by the acting bug at the age of five (Tess Keery), performing in tableaux realized by her mother (Catherine Ratusny, who also plays Dressler in her 40s). At 14, she lies about her age (Gabriella Kosmidis), saying she’s 18, and gets a job with the Nevada Travelling Stock Company and changes her name to Marie Dressler; launching her career and landing in the U.S.

From tableaux, to theatre, to vaudeville to the silver screen, Dressler’s career is a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs as she weathers the highs and lows of the business, embracing her ‘big girl’ brand with self-deprecation and good humour—and giving her all, and then some, to any part put upon her.

Shifting from theatre to movies, Dressler gets a break, working with fellow Canadian Mack Sennet (Adam Bonney); she goes on to work at MGM with Irving Thalberg (Conor Ling) and Louis B. Mayer (Rick Jones). Performing with the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Lionel Barrymore and Wallace Beery, Dressler packs movie houses with her comedic antics, and poignant, gutsy dramatic performances—receiving a Best Actress Oscar at the age of 60 (Leslie Rennie) for her performance in Min and Bill in 1930, and a nomination for Emma in 1932. A top box office draw in America at the time, she becomes the first female actor to appear on the cover of Time Magazine.

Embracing romance along the way, she meets and beings an affair with the charming Jim Dalton (Rick Jones), a married man with a wife in Boston who is smitten with Dressler, and woos her with gentlemanly manners and oysters. While happy to live the unorthodox life of an actor, Dressler longs for the stability and respectability of marriage, and she gets her wish; they later divorce after a series of unpleasant revelations regarding her shrinking bank account. Well into middle age, Dressler becomes smitten with Claire (Nina Tischhauser), a young nurse turned actress who she meets at an Oscar party. The two move in together and set up a cozy domestic and professional partnership, with Dressler acting as Claire’s acting mentor; but the relationship takes Claire away from her own dreams and aspirations—and Claire is faced with a hard decision.

Betrayed and cheated throughout her life—both personally and professionally—it is noteworthy that Dressler finds her primary source of support with her close network of women: her friend, astrologer Nella Webb (Siena Dolinski and Nance Gibson, playing Nella at different ages); her no-nonsense, fastidious maid/assistant Mamie Steele (Fallon Bowman and Indira Layne, playing Mamie at different ages); feisty cub reporter/fan turned screenwriter/Hollywood casting advocate Frances (Katherine Cappellacci); and her companion in later life, the tender, loyal caregiver Claire (Nina Tischhauser, who also plays Dressler in her 20s).

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Jessica Bowmer, James Phelan & Tess Keery. Photo by Bruce Peters.

It’s an ambitious production, imaginatively staged with a cast of 25 enthusiastic multitasking actors that includes 21 women, 10 of whom play Marie at various ages and stages of her hard-working, determined, never dull life. Paula Wilkie plays Dressler in the final scenes; despite a serious cancer diagnosis, Dressler eschews her new role as bed-ridden patient, opting to work on three MGM films in six months before dying at the age of 65. Shouts to all the Marie Dresslers (not previously mentioned: Michele Dodick, Katrina Koenig, Stella Kulagowski & Naomi Peltz) for their energy and panache! Other stand-outs include Ling’s snobbish Brit actor Dan Daley and hilarious turn as a petulant Hollywood film director; Jessica Bowmer’s adorably precocious Boy, who hawks newspapers, peanuts and oysters, and gets into scrapes with his competition; Tischhauser as Dressler’s supportive but conflicted lover Claire; and Rick Jones does a mean tap dance bit.

She’s the Queen! The life, love and rollercoaster career of the irrepressible star Marie Dressler in the delightful, entertaining Queen Marie.

Queen Marie continues on the Alumnae Theatre Mainstage until April 28. Get advance tickets online or by calling the box office: 416-364-4170, ext. 1 (cash only at the box office). Performances run Wednesday – Saturday at 8 pm, with PWYC matinees on Sunday at 2:00 pm.

The run includes a final Post-Show Talkback on Sunday April 22. Check out the fun trailer:

 

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Just before I sat down to write this review, I read in an Alumnae Theatre Twitter post that playwright Shirley Barrie had passed away; I’ve since learned that she’d been living with cancer and died on Sunday. I’m not sure if she was able to see this current production of Queen Marie, but Doyle, cast and crew did her proud. Thoughts go out to Shirley’s loved ones.