Liz Angle meets the Slasher.
Halloween weekend seems like a fitting time for a local theater group to open a mystery like The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940. Like the holiday itself, the Strollers Theatre production of this whodunit is more about fun than fear. As the German maid Helsa is throttled and dragged off in the first scene, what ensues are giggles, not gasps.
The action takes place at a wealthy woman's estate in Chappaqua, N.Y., during a blizzard. Elsa von Grossenknueten has bankrolled many a Broadway show, and the creative team behind White House Merry-Go-Round is hoping she'll fund them, too. So off trot a comic, singer/dancer, composer, lyricist and others to Elsa's mansion for a backer's audition.
Written by John Bishop in 1987, Musical Comedy Murders spoofs classic Hollywood mysteries and showbiz stereotypes. Every character fits some sort of mold, from the tanned, name-dropping director to the Irish tenor with his thick-as-oatmeal brogue to the over-eager comedian with his hackneyed jokes ("This place has more surprises than Ex-Lax!").
These roles, while not the stuff of high art, offer good comic possibilities. In fact, Murders seems especially well suited to community theater since it's got a relatively large cast of ten people, evenly divided between men and women.
It's the comedian, Eddie McCuen (played with physical aplomb by Matthew A. Schrader), who figures out that the team assembled at Elsa's mansion is the same team connected to an earlier show, Manhattan Holiday -- and during that show's run, three chorus girls were offed by the "Stage Door Slasher."
In fact, Elsa has more in mind than an audition; she's cooperating with hardboiled police sergeant Michael Kelly to uncover the Slasher's identity. But as the blizzard worsens and the electricity and phone lines go dead, will the innocent survive?
Murders has one of those twisting, turning plots in which people have secret identities (sometimes more than one), hidden passageways open and clues in a dead chorus girl's notebook must be cracked. By the end, things get a little confusing, but that's less important than the laughs along the way.
Don't expect edgy humor; it's fairly corny and intentionally so. Physical comedy is particularly important here; there's an extended struggle between actors Liz Angle (whom we first see as maid Helsa) and Tony Trout (first seen as the Irish tenor) that is one of the play's strongest scenes. Angle has great fun with her character's clipped accent and violent mannerisms.
I also liked Patricia Kugler Whitely, with her lower, slightly gravelly voice, as the diminutive, heavy-drinking Broadway lyricist Bernice. While at times I wish director Don McCoy had injected a little more urgency into the show's pace, this is generally a solid ensemble backed up by a capable technical team.
Producing Murders in the Bartell's larger venue, the Drury Stage, has allowed Strollers to do more with set design than companies often can on the tiny Evjue Stage. Frank Schneeberger's attractive set convincingly conveys a wealthy woman's home circa 1940, and Karen Tusack's costumes help develop the characters (for example, the lyricist's colorful, kimono-like wrap mirrors her flamboyant, bohemian personality).
If you're a fan of shows like Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap, then chances are Musical Comedy Murders is right up your alley.