By Dale King
The heat is on — meteorologically, that is. And Florida Atlantic University’s Department of Theatre and Dance has kicked off its 2023 Summer Festival Repertory Theatre season with an over-the-top sampling of frenetic comedy, one of the most fast-paced and hectic murder mystery parodies to cross the stage of the Marleen Forkas Studio One Theater on FAU’s Boca Raton campus in quite some time.
The performance, The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940, features a stellar and talented cast pulled together by veteran director Lee Soroko. It’s the first of two productions being performed by FAU students this summer. A Chorus Line opens July 14.
Created by playwright John Bishop, the author fills the stage with odd props and odd actors, many of them endowed with secretive missions, hidden weaponry and alternate identities that tend to obfuscate the plot — particularly as the show nears its conclusion.
The play was first performed at the Circle Repertory Company in New York City and later moved to Broadway in 1987. The playwright himself directed both performances and they shared the same cast. The director of this version gives us an early assessment of the production. “First and foremost, this play is not a musical. And perhaps this is the first of many red herrings in this farcical and ingenious comic romp masquerading as a ‘whodunit.’”
The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 is actually a play within a play. The overall performance focuses on the creative team responsible for concocting a recent Broadway flop called Manhattan Holiday. To make that sad endeavor worse, three chorus girls in the cast were murdered by a mysterious character called the “Stage Door Slasher” — a villain who has yet to be captured.
In the wake of that ruination, Elsa Von Grossenkneuten (Ana Calise), a financial backer of countless stage productions, has invited everyone from the disastrous original cast to come to her house and audition for a new and hopefully more successful production called White House Merry Go Round.
But Elsa has another reason for rallying the original ensemble. She is trying to find out who murdered her friend, Bebe McAllister, one of the chorus girls knifed by the slasher. Elsa hopes that person may be among the actors and crew members from the original show who are gathering for the audition.
FAU’s production unfolds in December 1940 in the library of a mansion in Chappaqua, N.Y., owned by Ms. Grossenknueten and her maid, Helsa Wenzel (Cait Siobhan Kiley), a particularly mysterious woman who sports multiple identities.
At this point, the guests — many of them harboring mysteries of their own — begin arriving. Irish tenor Patrick O’Reilly (Kyle Smith) leads the way, then director Ken De La Maize (Mitchell Worrell-Olson), a beautiful singer/dancer named Nikki Crandall (Allie Gladstone); a young (and not very funny) comedian named Eddie McCuen (Zach Marullo) and Broadway producer Marjorie Baverstock (Shayna Gilberg).
Act I is spent establishing the show’s background in the beautiful mansion — the elegant work of scenic designer April Soroko. Act II brings in Mike Kelly (Joel Rodriguez) revealing he’s actually an undercover police officer who conducts a plausible Christie-like interrogation in his search for the “slasher.”
This is where the action really gets crazy, with slapstick, farce, slamming doors, people lost in mazes, among other oddities. Plot complexities multiply with loud conversations and multiple trips through secret doorways and swiveling bookcases leading to hidden passageways. At least one of the tunnels has five routes, one character says.
The activity intensifies, so much so that the audience may find it difficult to follow. Performers disappear and reappear and brandish weapons ranging from guns to knives – and even a bottle of cognac becomes a convenient defensive tool when applied smartly to the head.
Despite the plenitude of wild stage-bound goings-on, the show contains lots of jokes, pratfalls and silly pranks that entertain the audience through the fairly lengthy production.
The performers give the show their all, with Kiley earning the gold star for creating four personages. Thumbs-up to everyone in the cast.
In the end, director Soroko sums it up this wild work: “The play offers corny satire of classic Hollywood thrillers, while simultaneously poking fun at show business via the ‘Great White Way.’”
The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 runs through July 1 at the Marleen Forkas Studio One Theatre on Florida Atlantic University’s Boca Raton campus, 777 Glades Road. Tickets for each show are $27, and groups and package discounted tickets are available at www.fauevents.com or by calling 561-297-6124.