|Amelia Michaels, Michael Allen, Redmond Reams, and Ami Ericson|
By Tina Arth
Mask & Mirror’s latest production, The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940, provides some real challenges for its cast. Author John Bishop’s 1987 murder-mystery, while loaded with the murders and red herrings that define the genre, is neither a musical nor a tightly written comedy, and the script would fall flat if not for the dedication of its talented actors. While it may not be possible to make a silk purse out of this particular sow’s ear, it is possible to make an audience laugh at the silly antics, physical comedy, broad stereotypes, and absurd story – and director Rick Hoover and his cast succeed well beyond what might be expected of a community theater team.
The convoluted set-up is this: it is 1940, so the U.S. is heavily involved in the events surrounding World War II but not yet actively at war. The cops are looking for a serial killer dubbed “The Stage Door Slasher” who recently murdered three tutu-clad chorines from a Broadway musical. The composer, lyricist, director and producer of a new musical are brought together at the Chappaqua estate of a wealthy backer, Elsa von Grossenknueten, ostensibly to try out their show for her. The audition involves the assistance of three performers: Irish tenor Patrick O’Reilly, ingénue Nikki Crandall, and comic Eddie McKuen. Also on site are Elsa’s uber-German maid and an undercover cop. The real reason for bringing the group together is to suss out the identity of the Slasher (naturally, in a remote location where all players are trapped during the obligatory snowstorm). The show opens when a mysteriously masked figure murders Helsa the maid, then stashes her away in a closet – yet miraculously, Helsa seems to be alive and well the next morning (spoiler alert: Helsa is not an onlychild). Mayhem ensues, more people die, secret identities are revealed, and the Slasher ultimately found out. Aaaand curtain!
Some of the finest comedy comes from two women – Amelia Michaels (as Helsa Wenzel and her siblings) and Rebecca Rowland Hines (as lyricist Bernice Roth). While I could not always follow Michaels’ hearty German accent and rapid dialogue, she is absolutely hilarious as an uncooperatively loose-limbed corpse and later as a ferociously agile foe. Hines has fun with her character’s gradual descent into inebriation, and delivers some appallingly bad rhymes with a straight face as she turns her focus to yet another (undoubtedly doomed) musical. Ami Ericson’s scatterbrained but likeable von Grossenkneuten is a constant, somewhat steadying if ditzy force.
As Irish tenor Patrick O’Reilly, Jeff Ekdahl issn’t much of a tenor or an Irishman – it was only after he tried out an equally unconvincing New York accent that I realized it was the character, not the actor, responsible for these lapses. On the other hand, it was clear from the beginning that Luke Mitchell’s “Eddie McKuen” was written as a truly terrible comic. Mitchell and Michelle Wangerzyn, who plays ingénue Nikki Crandall, create some charmingly awkward chemistry that provides the necessary love interest.
Woody Woodbury’s set design makes the most of the available space, with lots of upscale touches and the requisite plethora of entries and exits (the tromp l’oeil book cases with hidden panels are both impressive and essential to the plot), and the forties era costuming is both detailed and fun.
Audiences in search of great art may want to visit Mask & Mirror at another time (perhaps one of their edgier “Unmasked” productions), but The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 is a fine choice for an unabashedly lighthearted, undemanding theatrical evening.
The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 runs through November 19th, with performances at 7:30 P.M. on Fridays and Saturdays and 2:00 P.M. Sundays at “The Stage” at Calvin Church, 10445 SW Canterbury Lane, Tigard, 97224.