BWW Reviews: MURDER FOR DUMMIES - Fun Despite Flaws
On a dark and stormy night, Philip L. Nichols, Jr.'s MURDER FOR DUMMIES had its world premiere at the Country Playhouse as part of their murder mystery desert theatre that is catered and sponsored by Brio Tuscan Grille. The play is a comedic murder mystery and revels in its genre clichés. The plot of the show follows the gathering of a wealthy family to hear the reading of a will. Each member of the family and assorted acquaintances has a lot to gain from the murders, giving rise to plenty of suspicion and possible motives. So where do a ventriloquist and his dummy fit into this assembled group? Patriarch of the family, William Vanderby, has invited them to provide entertainment over the course of the weekend. Once the group is assembled at the Vanderby mansion, a hurricane barrels through and messes with the unstable power grid, and a classic 1930s murder mystery unfolds.
Directed by Melissa L. Nichols, the play is entertaining and light-hearted fare. Before the show started, she stepped out to introduce the show and explained that the cast had seven brief rehearsals before opening. Sadly, in performance, this shows. Lines are flubbed and restarted and cues are anticipated too early, causing some lines to be started before they are supposed to be. There are also issues with vocal projection. A majority of the show can be heard in row D of the auditorium; however, some lines were barely audible just four short rows from the stage. There's no getting around it, the show is rough around The Edges but did manage to engage the audience enough to keep them amused.
Doing triple duty as playwright, Lester Winchell, and Corky O'Nelson, Philip K. Nichols, Jr.'s ventriloquism skills are front and center in the production. Trained by Edgar Bergen, he fantastically delivers the ventriloquist illusion. I can't recall ever seeing ventriloquism performed in real-life until this show, and I found myself particularly amazed by how well Philip K. Nichols, Jr. can throw his voice. Truly, his own mouth hardly moves when he speaks for Corky.
Yankie Grant as Vera Charlemene earns a majority of the audience's audible laughter. She fully commits to her lush of a character and her alcohol-induced disorientation. Most impressively, she manages to bring a fresh air to each clichéd or repeated humorous line and action.
As Gloria Vanderby, the matriarch of the family, Christy Jimmerson also elicits everything from smiles to laughs. Her character attempts stoicism, but crumbles under the circumstances unfurling in her home. Without much warning, she's chewing scenery in a way that is reminiscent of Sally Field, but doesn't quite reach that bar when maybe it should have.
John Kaiser, as William Vanderby, is good at being the scumbag multi-millionaire without a moral compass. His character, albeit clichéd, is interesting. Yet, his stage time is limited and doesn't give him much of a chance to perform.
The rest of this ensemble cast adequately portray their characters and are passable in their roles as well. Sue Marsh and Anita Darby as Aunt Agatha Hollingsworth and Nurse Christie are a formidable duo. The first joke about their combined names induced lots of chuckles, but they waned with each passing reference. Bob Galley as Larchmont the butler is rigid and static, earning most of his laughs when dancing a lengthy dance in the second act so the rest of the cast could change costumes. Mark C. Connelly (Quentin Vanderby), Tyrell Woolbert (Sybil Vanderby), and Derek Lanphier (David Collins) are convincing as the possible young heirs to the Vanderby estate, but ultimately do not have a lot to work with in terms of dialogue. Michael Raabe, as Inspector Bainbridge, adds a lot of caricature into his portrayal, making for a memorable cartoony performance. Patrick Slagle (Sergeant Papert), Vance Johnson (Major Ronald Catsup), James Carl Darby (Stage Hand), and John Stevenson (Announcer/Radio News Voice) are believable in their brief roles and make the most of their short time with the audience.
The set design by Melissa L. Nichols and Philip L. Nichols is your standard parlor scene for a mansion, and works for what it's needed for. In execution though, there are exposed seams and rough edges-especially on the stage-left doorframe.
The lighting design by Barney Mills is simplistic and does well conveying the weakness of the power grid when needed. However, Melissa L. Nichols sound design sometimes has the thunder sound effects too loud, causing lines to not be heard. Also, the sound effect for the reveal of a clue showed up at one or two points in the performance I attended without a noticeable reason.
With the flaws mentioned, this is by no means a perfect, stellar production. On the other hand, the tongue-in-cheek references to Brio and cheeky humor made this performance. So, I did have fun and enjoy myself. I was very disappointed that the clues used to solve the mystery were not often in sight of the audience, which feels rather unfair. This facet takes the fun of sleuthing out of the show. In the end, I can't say this was the worst production I've ever sat through, but I also can't say it was among the best.
MURDER FOR DUMMIES runs at Country Playhouse until Sunday, September 16, 2012. For more information and tickets, please visit http://countryplayhouse.org/ or call (713) 467 – 4497.
Promotional Images courtesy of Country Playhouse.
Promotional Image for MURDER FOR DUMMIES.
Mark C. Connelly (Quentin Vanderby)
Corky & Philip K. Nichols, Jr. (Lester Winchell)