Friday, March 13, 2009

A Review of Musical Comedy Murder...

MVLCT - When I think of 1940, I think of a political and social situation not far from where we are today. Recession at home, a war abroad, an ambitious administration pushing sweeping new reforms in an attempt to address the moment in history. A time when, it must have seemed, the future was uncertain and nothing would ever be funny again.

But perhaps I’m a little preoccupied. I’ve forgotten, of course, about the other side of 1940 – the glamour of Broadway, the flashing lights of the silver screen – the rampant escapism that made life in history just a little bit more bearable. Perhaps I should feel a little guilty for shirking my civic duty to visit such a fantastic place, but, as my father always said: no politics at the dinner table.

Such is the case at Gwen’s, where it’s 1940, Hitler is an ocean away, and the Great Depression hasn’t touched the von Grossenknueten estate. MVLCT’s dinner-theatre production does give us plenty to chew on, however. For instance, why is it that three and only three actors have been called here for a mere backer’s audition? What might it bode that the producing company for White House Merry-Go-Round is the same which produced the ill-fated Manhattan Holliday, during which three chorus girls were stabbed? If Helsa Wenzel (Carole Martin) was murdered at the beginning of the play, who’s that wearing her clothes? And why is producer Marjorie Baverstock (Amy White) just sitting there with that blank look on her face? Can the Act II opener have been that bad?

Add the inevitable blizzard, a bumbling policeman, and an eccentric cast of usual suspects, and you have The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940, a loving send-up of the classic murder mystery. Penned in 1987 by John Bishop, the script is a fun romp around a stately mansion crawling with hidden passageways and secret identities. MVLCT’s company steps up to the challenge, presenting colorful performances and well-timed gags with energy and specificity.

The first thing one notices is the set. A show like this requires considerable technical attention, due to the staples of the mystery genre: moving walls, eyeholes in the paintings and suspenseful blackouts. This must have been quite a challenge to build in a restaurant, and the audience is a bit crammed in, but the spectacle is well worth it.

The performances are all quite respectable, but a few stand out. August Shultz plays Eddie McCuen, the aspiring comedian with a thing for Nikkie Crandall (Nicci Miles), a chorus girl who seems to be hiding something. Shultz is young and energetic, immediately catching the audience’s attention as he bounces on stage. He plays well off of Miles, a particularly attentive performer with excellent timing and use of gesture. Carole Martin is delightfully wicked as Helsa. Cory Goldensoph, who plays Patrick O’Reilly, displays a range of abilities from accent work to stage combat. Finally, Mary Morgan-Blacharski steals many a scene as the rambunctious Bernice Roth.

Some characters, such as Roger Hopewell (Darrin Gage) and Michael Kelly (Dave Rotschafer) seemed a little bland against this wild backdrop. Mary Jane Myers, who plays Elsa von Grossenknueten, goes a little overboard with her accent, muddling lines occasionally. Robin Stoker’s direction, however, melds these performances into a solid whole with focus and precise timing.

To those expecting gourmet-class drama, the script itself might be a bit unpalatable. The second act goes on too long (the entire show runs a little over two hours); as the killer’s identity becomes clearer, there are constant interruptions for repeated verbal gags, name-dropping, and convoluted exposition. Also, one may need to check one’s political correctness at the door; the stereotypes in the play can leave a bad aftertaste, particularly the scarf-and-limp wrist portrayal of Roger, the songwriter. The cast seasons the final course with solid performances, however, and the cartoony types are forgivable in what is basically a light snack of high-energy comedy.

As for the aforementioned dinner table, the food was good, certainly worth the price ($20 for the show and dinner); there were potatoes, green beans, and a choice of swiss steak, popcorn shrimp, or chicken. No vegetarian entrée was offered, although there was a salad bar. It could have been served later; starting the meal at 6:30 and the two-hour show at 8 makes for a long night.

So if you’ve got a taste for nostalgia or want to cleanse your pallet with a little silliness, you might want to get down to Gwen’s. No politics at this dinner table; only a murder or two.

There are two more performances of the show: March 14 and March 15 (matinee). Go here for more information.

--James Trainor

James recently graduated from Cornell College with a Bachelor of Special Studies in English and Theater. He has also acted and directed for Stage Left Theater in Cedar Rapids.

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