There’s musical in the title but this is a must-see comedy
Only a veteran cast of characters could pull off the split-second timing of dialogue and sight gags required by the ensemble assembled to present “The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940,” the fast-paced farce currently playing at the Plaza Theater Company at Dudley Hall in Cleburne.
It’s not a musical at all, but it certainly is a comedy during which a few of the characters are killed by “The Stage Door Slasher,” whose victims are female theater chorus members or dancers.
The PTC group consists of 10 actors, five of whom (Luke Hunt, Jay Lewis, Shauna Lewis, Milette Siler and Stephen Singleton) are members of the “Plaza Theatre Company 20 Club,” meaning each has participated in at least 20 PTC productions since 2006, and the other five will be so recognizable by PTC regulars that you are surprised they, too, are not in the “20 Club.”
What they are in, though, is the Chappaqua, New York, mansion owned by wealthy Elsa Von Grossenknueten, whose name alone elicits laughs (played by the great Trich Zaitoon) and who may or may not decide to finance another musical produced by the creative team that was responsible for a recent Broadway flop during which three chorus girls were murdered.
This creative team includes a producer (Shauna Lewis), director (Hunt), composer (Jay Lewis), tipsy songwriter (Siler), Irish tenor (Robert Shores), chorus girl (Katherine Anthony on the night I attended but double cast with Megan A Liles), struggling comedian (Stephen Singleton), a maid (Kelly Singleton), a undercover detective (Jeff Meador) and the hostess (Zaitoon).
Originally produced in New York in the late 1980s, the John Bishop-authored play is set in December 1940 in Von Grossenknueten’s library that has few books but plenty of sliding doors that lead to secret passageways and multiple twists and turns that keep you off guard and not knowing who will appear next, or disappear.
The creative team thinks they are there to audition their new musical for Von Grossenknueten and her financial backing, but have actually been assembled by the detective who thinks he can flush out the killer.
Unable to leave because of a snow blizzard, the creative team must endure power outages, murder and mistrust of each other.
You know something is fishy from the get-go when a mysterious hooded-cloaked-and-masked person stabs the maid, yet she reappears minutes later from behind one of the sliding doors. What is she doing here? Isn’t she dead?
What’s fishy is this production is full of red herrings, the dramatic device of introducing clues that are real and others that are purposely meant to mislead.
This is a game warden’s nightmare, because there is no limit of them.
One important aspect that makes this production so enjoyable is that the actors are obviously having fun, too, along with the audience. It’s not that they’re spoofing or slacking, but rather respecting the guidance of director JaceSon P. Barrus and assistant director Freddy Martinez Jr. As Barrus says in his “Director’s Note” in the playbill, “It’s been a sheer delight directing this talented cast of performers, designers and technicians. So much attention to detail has been contributed by everyone involved.”
So much that you have to listen to every word (especially about Nazi saboteurs) and watch every corner of the stage, which is difficult because this theater-in-the-round doesn’t have corners, but it does have edges, and that’s where many surprises take place. There’s an exchange between Grossenknueten and Det. Kelly that is very funny, but you’ll miss the humor if your eyes don’t shift back and forth across the floor from one actor to the other, like sitting at center court at a tennis match.
The 10 actors on stage are supported by 16 people behind the scenes, seven of whom have multiple responsibilities and five of whom are members of the “20 Club,” so you expect this to be a good evening at the theater. And fun. And funny. And it is all that.
“The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940,” written by John Bishop, directed by JaceSon P. Barrus, with costume design by Emily Warwick, light design by Cameron Barrus and scenic construction by Soni Barrus, Parker Barrus, Jesse Bowron, Nolan Moralez, Deb Dandridge and Mark Dandridge, is presented at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and 3 p.m. Saturdays through Jan. 26 at the 276-seat theater-in-the-round, Plaza Theatre at Dudley Hall, 305 S. Anglin St. in Cleburne.
Tickets — $25 for adults, $23 for age 65 and older and high school and college students, and $15 for youth age 13 and under — can be purchased online at www.plaza-theatre.com, or at the box office from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, or by phone at 817-202-0600.