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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

From Hollywood to Bollywood with
Moonlight and Magnolias at Intiman and Bombay Dreams at the 5th Avenue

Moonlight and Magnolias
John Procaccino and Tom Beckett
Photo: Chris Bennion
Seattle audiences got two very different behind-the-scenes looks at moviemaking this week, with the arrival of Intiman Theatre's slapstick-filled staging of Moonlight and Magnolias, Ron Hutchinson's behind-the-scenes view of the birth pangs of the film version of Gone With the Wind; and the last stop of the national tour of Bombay Dreams at the 5th Avenue Theatre.

Moonlight and Magnolias takes us into the offices of movie mega-mogul David O. Selznick as he labors to save Gone With the Wind after the firing of initial director George Cukor (a noted women's director who male star Clark Gable felt was throwing all the juiciest moments to his female co-stars Vivien Leigh and Olivia deHavilland). A Gable favorite, the macho Victor Fleming, was pulled off shooting his own troubled MGM epic The Wizard of Oz and screenwriter Ben Hecht was brought in to doctor the unwieldy script by Sidney Howard (and many others). The play takes literally the fable that David O. Selznick locked himself, Fleming and Hecht in his office for five days to cobble together a less wordy and rambling Wind before the cameras rolled again.

Playwright Hutchinson mixes fact and fancy fairly adroitly, though the script stumbles a bit when it gets mired in ruminations about the treatment of Jews in Hollywood. Happily, Timothy Near directs the piece with a breathless sense of pacing and good humor, and has cast three admirable actors to portray the volatile trio of Hollywood pros who made Gone With the Wind the most hugely successful film of its day, against all odds.

As Selznick, Tom Beckett brings enormous energy and comic timing to his role, which includes many amusing moments enacting bits of various characters' dialogue, including that vixen Scarlett O'Hara herself. The actor seems a bit more slight of build and fey of manner than one imagines the real Selznick was, but triumphs in depicting the film mogul's single-minded determination to escape from the shadow of his late rival, producer Irving Thalberg, as well as to prove his mettle to skeptical father-in-law, Louis B. Mayer. John Procaccino as Fleming is the comic eye of the hurricane and grows funnier the wearier his character gets. He also gives an account of Butterfly McQueen's Prissy character that is indescribably odd and hilarious. Peter Van Norden gives the most human and touching performance as Hecht, the wry and skeptical Jewish screenwriter who comes to the project not knowing Scarlett O'Hara from the Scarlet Pimpernel. Selznick's devoted but world weary secretary Miss Pophengul is given a droll comic reading by Marya Sea Kaminski.

Matthew Smucker's set is a gorgeous, down-to-the-last-detail recreation of a big Hollywood studio exec's office, and is so lovely in fact, that it is sort of hard to watch as (in a superbly staged homage to silent screen slapstick) it is rendered a squalid mess of banana peels, peanut shells, and strewn-about script pages. Lighting designer David Cuthbert comes up with some shimmeringly beautiful effects, and Elizabeth Hope Clancy's costume designs are handsome evocations of the era indeed. Only those few peculiar souls who somehow escaped ever seeing Gone With the Wind in the last six-plus decades are likely to say "Fiddle-dee-dee" to the airy charms of Moonlight and Magnolias.

Hard-sell razzle dazzle, ersatz Hollywood style is the order of the day in Bombay Dreams, the West End hit and Broadway misfire musical at the 5th Avenue Theatre, which affectionately and ornately mocks the South Asian film industry's Bollywood musicals. This is a show that wants to be liked, sometimes a bit too aggressively. Never having seen it, or heard more than a few bars of its score before, it won me over. A.R. Rahman's music is sometimes appealing and never annoying, and Don Black's lyrics are workmanlike but not the worst you'll hear. The book is by Meera Syal with additional dialogue (and probably most of its best one-liners) by old Broadway hand Thomas Meehan, and is based on an idea by Shekhar Kapur and Andrew Lloyd Webber himself. Director Baayork Lee packages the show handsomely with swift pacing and sees to it that it rarely becomes too campy for its own good.

In a plot right out of old Hollywood musicals from Busby Berkely to Mickey and Judy, we meet Akaash, a likable, slum-raised tour guide who longs to see himself on the silver screen. When a meeting with Priya, a film director's forward thinking daughter, leads to his making that dream a reality, he sells out on his family and friends before ultimately realizing his betrayal may cost them their homes, and finding a way to make amends. Oh, and of course Akaash and Priya are together for a kiss at the fade-out, an important inclusion, because in a real Bollywood film kissing is forbidden, and there is always a cut away to a musical number.

Sachin Bhatt as Akaash has a fine, rangy voice and believably conveys the character's growth as a film performer. Bhatt's inherent likability causes some difficulty in making us accept his character's turning his back on all he held dear, but he does have good chemistry with his romantic interest, the attractive and sweet-voiced Reshma Shetty as Priya. Shetty and Bhatt share a more than passingly pretty act two love song, "How Many Stars?", and her solo vocal turn on "Is This Love?" is notable. The big centerpiece musical number "Shakalaka Baby" is fronted by the considerably talented Sandra Allen as the self-adoring movie queen Rani. Ms. Allen is just as dynamic here as she was (performing richer material) as Linda Low in the Broadway revival of Flower Drum Song.

Bombay Dreams
Christine Toy Johnson
Photo: Joan Marcus
Deep Katdare is reasonably hissable as the snaky villain Vikram. The show stealer, however, is the indisputably charismatic Aneesh Sheth as Sweetie, a Eunuch/Transsexual who has always had an unreciprocated crush on childhood chum Akaash. Sheth doesn't overplay his showy, sexually ambivalent role and is probably the most likable character on the stage. And (in a character part that doesn't begin to showcase the depth and breadth of her talents) Christine Toy Johnson gives her considerable all to the role of solid platinum phony TV commentator Kitty DaSouza and wakes up the second act with her only featured number "Famous." The ensemble display considerable precision and energy in the many production numbers choreographed with glossy verve by Lisa Stevens. Musical Supervision by Kevin Farrell is laudable.

On the technical side, Kenneth Foy's scenic designs and video animation are accomplished and well complemented by John McClain's lighting design. The costumes, oddly uncredited, are a feast for the eyes as well.

One could make a case that Bombay Dreams is imitation Americanized Bollywood, but since Bollywood is ersatz Hollywood to begin with, don't let that deter you. It's escapist fun and you'll have trouble getting "Shakalaka Baby" out of your head, no matter how much you may want to!

Moonlight and Magnolias runs through October 7, 2006 at Intiman Theatre, 101 Mercer Street, in Seattle Center. For more information go to www.intiman.org.

Bombay Dreams runs through October 1, 2006 at the 5th Avenue Theatre, downtown Seattle. Visit the 5th Avenue's web-site at www.5thavenuetheatre.org for further details.



- David-Edward Hughes



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