Monday, April 30, 2012

The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940

The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940

at Lakewood Playhouse
reviewed by Michael Dresdner

Pictured, top: Melissa Thayer  and Blake York; bottom: Jen Akrum  and Joseph Grant. Photos courtesy Lakewood Playhouse.
The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 is a lush, beautiful tableau of dazzling costumes, an intricate set, and a spate of characters from the gritty yet glamorous pre-war era. As it opens, a maid is stabbed to death.

Gory, right? Nope. Hilarious. The victim, played by a master of physical comedy, creates a chuckle-invoking death routine, then keeps the laughs going as the murderer props and drags her contorting body hither and yon before taking it offstage.

You see, in spite of it’s name, this is far less a murder mystery than a complete comic romp; think “The Pink Panther” meets the Marx Brothers.  

Act one sets up the basic storyline. The personnel of a play, including actors, director, producer and composer, gather at the home of a potential backer, ostensibly to do a presentation of a musical. They soon realize that many of them are from a previous play closed due to a mysterious killer who knocked off fellow theatrical denizens, and that he or she is probably in their midst today. Sounds spooky, right?

Well, it’s not. In fact, now that you know the story line, you can forget it, because by the time act two gears up, we find that most of the characters are not who they say they are. What was set up as a straightforward murder mystery is quickly replaced with fast paced lunacy.

There are frenetically mimed instructions to control a befuddled woman trying to explain inconsistencies, a half naked struggle for a gun easily misread as an energetic bout of copulation on a desk, and a rash of comings and goings in a maze of tunnels accessed through a group of cleverly hidden secret doors. And through it all, there’s a steady stream of great set ups and comic one liners.  

But most of all there are characters who are…, well, complete characters.

We have the maid (Melissa Thayer), who in spite of having seemingly been killed, sticks around through the whole play, continuing to display the superb comic talent she opened with. The owner of the home and potential backer (Liz Tomski) introduces a cop (Mark Peterson) as her servant to the theatrical group of visitors. Said visitors drift in through a snowstorm and include an Irish (?) tenor (Blake York), a foppish, tonsorial director (Joseph Grant), an ingenuous chorus girl (Jen Akrum), a stand up comic (Matt Garry), a stuffy producer (Virginia Yanoff), a flamboyantly gay musical director (Jeffrey Weaver), and a histrionic lush of a lyricist (Jen Aylsworth).

You’ll notice that I didn’t bother with their character names, because too many change both names and personas before this is over. There’s also no sense calling out singularly superb performances, because this is a true ensemble piece, and they were all truly outstanding, both separately and together. In fact, part of what makes this work is perfect timing and delivery in both actions and lines, a tribute both to the actors and director James Venturini.

The support is no less. John Munn designed a beautiful and fiendishly clever set that expertly hides a wealth of hidden doors. Costumer Diane Runkle pulled out all the stops, dressing the cast in gorgeous and spot on period clothes. Even the wonderful props, by Karrie Nevin, get into the comic act.

By now you should be largely confused, convinced you know precious little about this play, right? Fair enough; I’ll clarify by telling you there are only two things you really need to know.

First, The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 at Lakewood Playhouse is a convoluted, high energy farce that will leave you laughing and delighted by the time the final curtain falls. Second, you should definitely go to see it. But get your tickets soon. This one will surely fill the seats once word gets out.

The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940
April 27 to May 20,2012
Lakewood Playhouse

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