BWW Reviews: THE MUSICAL COMEDY MURDERS OF 1940 at Towne Centre Theatre

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John Bishop's The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 is a deliciously campy send-up of movies, mysteries and musicals - and now, thanks to a top-flight production from Brentwood's Towne Centre Theatre, local audiences can once again revel in the play's cleverly constructed, though thoroughly implausible, plot brought to life by an accomplished cast.

Marking the directorial debut of Matt Grimes, who also plays comic Eddie McCuen in the play, begging the question: Which came first - the chicken or the egg? - or rather, which gig did Grimes take first? No matter, really, since Grimes acquits himself admirably on both scores, showing a deft and confident skill in helming the production, while displaying a talent for expert timing and cracking wise. (For this, we will forgive him for giving himself the production's final curtain call.)

Set during a winter snowstorm in 1940 on the Chappaqua, New York, estate of Elsa Von Grossenknueten (her name is almost as hard to pronounce as it is to spell), Bishop's delightful scenario brings together the creative team from a failed Broadway musical, notable because of the murders of three chorus girls during the show's pre-NYC tour. Ostensibly, the cast of wacky characters are gathered together for a backer's audition for a new Washington, D.C.-based musical, but the cops have hopes of getting to the bottom of the real mystery: Who is the killer? Before the slasher's identity can be determined, however, the death count continues to rise as one by one the play's characters somehow find themselves impaled on any number of sharp objects.

The assembled artistic types include the musical's director Ken de la Maize (Joe Shepherd gives a pitch-perfect reading of the drunk-on-his-own-sense-of-imagined-fame auteur, just back from a less-than-successful sojourn in Hollywood, where he apparently directed every star in MGM's stable in heretofore unreleased films); and the musical's composer and lyricist Roger Hopewell and Bernice Roth (Corey Caldwell plays the fey and flamboyant Roger with a perfect blend of over-the-top foppishness and 1940s caricature, while Lynn Yates gives Bernice a wonderfully understated portrayal that yields huge laughs), a stereotypical yet hilarious duo of tunesmiths who are right on the cusp of that one big hit (Nebraska!) that could assure their enshrinement in the pantheon of musical greats alongside Jerome Kerm, Irving Berlin and George and Ira - aka The Gershwins.

They are joined by producer Marjorie Baverstock (the "devoon" Paula Higgins), an Irish tenor - with a wandering accent - named Patrick O'Reilly (Dan Linney, well-cast in the role), chorus girl Nikki Crandall (Annaliese Higgins, looking for all the world like a 1940s chorine) and the aforementioned comic Eddie McCuen.

For more intrigue and comedic possibilities, Elsa's mansion is riddled with secret tunnels and hidden passageways and peopled with suspicious servants, like the maid Helsa Wenzel (Kathy Crisp chews up the scenery with zany abandon and proves herself adept at physical comedy), a refugee from Nazi Germany, and her driver Michael Kelly (who's actually a police officer, played by David Thoreson).

Finally, there is Elsa herself (Beth Henderson gives a focused, yet scatterbrained, performance as the mystery-loving heiress - her grandfather was the top espionage agent in the Kaiser's Germany before The Great War) and a shadowy figure (Ryan Arthur in a largely thankless, but well-played, role) who's responsible for all the dastardly deeds being committed at the estate.

Bishop's sense of fun and frivolity and his dexterity in creating snappy dialogue (although, interestingly, the Ronald Reagan-inspired wisecracks about actors in politics fall flat in 2011 - are audiences really that unaware?) results in a show that is at once completely unbelievable yet enormously entertaining and watchable. Thanks to Grimes' attention to detail and the fact that all his players are clearly on the same page - they get the jokes, they understand the genre and they're obviously having a good time onstage - ensures that audiences eagerly anticipate every possible twist and turn in the ridiculous plot.

The show's playbill gives no one credit for set design (although Joe Linney is listed as "set chief"), which is unfortunate, because it's the best set we've seen at Towne Centre Theatre, and kudos to Paul Higgins for her visually pleasing set dressing. It is shown off to perfection by the lighting design (credit is given to Jim Himelrick and Matt Grimes for that job) and Bette Lordeman's costume design is nothing short of stellar, among the best we've seen recently.

- The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940. By John Bishop. Directed by Matt Grimes. Presented by Towne Centre Theatre, 136 Frierson Street, Brentwood. Through April 16. For details, visit the company's website at www.townecentretheatre.com or call (615) 221-1174 for reservations.

Pictured: Corey Caldwell in The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940/photo by Lu Goddard

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Jeffrey Ellis Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 25 years. He is the recipient of the Tennessee Theatre Association's Distinguished Service Award for his coverage of theatre in the Volunteer State and was the founding editor/publisher of Stages, the Tennessee Onstage Monthly. He is a past fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center and is the founder/executive producer of The First Night Honors, held during Labor Day Weekend, which honor oustanding theater artists in Tennessee in recognition of their lifetime achievements and includes The First Night Star Awards and the Most Promising Actors. Midwinter's First Night, held the first Sunday in January after New Year's Day, honors outstanding productions and performances throughout the state. Further, Ellis directed the Nashville premiere of La Cage Aux Folles, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and An American Daughter, as well as award-winning productions of Damn Yankees, Company, Gypsy and The Rocky Horror Show, with Ellis honored by The Tennessean as best director of a musical for both Company and Rocky Horror.


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