Review: THE MUSICAL COMEDY MURDERS OF 1940 at The Candlelight Theatre

A wacky whodunit running through June 25th

By: May. 24, 2023
Review: THE MUSICAL COMEDY MURDERS OF 1940 at The Candlelight Theatre

The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 by John Bishop is said to have been based on several 1940s mystery movies, including The Cat and the Canary, one of Bob Hope's first films. Audiences in the 1940s were gifted murder mystery movies the likes of Mildred Pierce with Joan Crawford, Dark Passage with Humphry Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and Sorry, Wrong Number with Barbara Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster. There was even a radio drama series, Suspense, which began broadcasting on CBS Radio in 1940. Nothing made one forget their troubles like a good whodunit. But, what about the B-rated crime thrillers of that age? Ever heard of Mr. Dynamite with Lloyd Nolan, or Scared Stiff with Jack Haley and Ann Savage, or Eyes in the Night with Edward Arnold and Donna Reed (yes, that Donna Reed). It is the B-rated movie style that is the launch pad for The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940. Mr. Bishop relies solely on the exaggerated plot turns and wacky over-the-top characters of the whodunits of yesteryear in creating The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 (which, by the way, isn’t a musical). 

The play takes place in the library of a Chappaqua, New York mansion owned by Elsa Von Grossenknueten (Susan Wefel) where Ms. Grossenknueten is set to entertain invited guests as part of a developing theater production’s backer’s audition. The actual show begins with a dumb-show between the murderer and the live-in maid, Helsa Wenzel (Chelsea Paradiso). Then, the guests begin to arrive - Irish tenor, Patrick O'Reilly (Walter Todd), Theatre Director, Ken De La Maize (Chris Fitting), Singer/Dancer, Nikki Crandall (Sarah Mackus), Comedian, Eddie McCuen (Robert Gene Pellechio). Once all of those characters have “introduced” themselves (in dramatic fashion) and the audience gets to known them a bit, the remaining guests arrive – Producer Marjorie Baverstock (Samantha Ricchiuti), Music Composer, Roger Hopewell (Shaun Yates) and Lyricist Bernice Roth (Susan Giddings). Oh, and of course, there’s undercover Detective Michael Kelly (Henry Glejzer) and the obligatory murder mystery weather event – in this case a blizzard – that makes escaping impossible. Seems like a reasonable setting for a routine backer’s audition, right?  Eddie quickly realizes that this entire production team is the same team that made "Manhattan Holiday" in which The Stage Door Slasher murdered three women. Eddie instantly wants to leave but is convinced by the group to stay. Now that everyone is introduced and the audience is given a reason to continue watching, mayhem ensues – a series of dizzying conversations, multiple trips through secret doorways into a labyrinth of hidden passageways, multiple crimes and various criminals uncovered, and eventually, the Stage Door Slasher is revealed.

Review: THE MUSICAL COMEDY MURDERS OF 1940 at The Candlelight Theatre

The genre of murder mystery / noir is often used for comedy skits. It was usually one of the best moments in Whose Line Is It Anyway?. The over-the-top characterization are comedy gold. It’s no surprise that this cast of able performers did a lovely job tuning into their wacky. Susan Wefel plays Elsa von Grossenknueten with an even-handed air of eccentric rich. Chris Fitting brings just the right amount of swarmy to Ken De La Maize. Walter Todd’s brogue for Patrick O’Reilly is far better than his attempt of a Mafioso Italian accent. Sarah Mackus as Nikki Crandall and Robert Gene Pellechio as Eddie McCuen are well matched, both giving well-rounded portrayals. (I believe their duet is the only actual full song in the show?) The comedy weight of the show is borne by Shaun Yates and Susan Giddings. Whenever Ms. Giddings was on, you knew funny was about to happen.

To be honest, I love a good murder mystery. When done as a stage play along with slapstick and overall goofiness, I couldn’t be happier. I would love to tell you that I was completely fulfilled with this production, but I can’t. This is mostly due to the writing and not the performers. The plot is chaotic. I feel as if the playwright wanted to include too many elements from various 1940s mystery movies. The show even includes an Abbott & Costello homage. (Although, I’m totally there for Abbott & Costello bits.)  Mr. Bishop’s interest in generating gags takes a toll on the murder mystery format, while Micki Sharpe’s stage direction hinders execution of the intended gags. The opening pantomime is lackluster, but the slow-motion fight scene hits just right. If Mr. Bishop's script asks for wild gags, then the director must lean fully into the spoof, and deliberately groom the performers to execute the necessary physical acting for the gags to reach their full potential and really make things swing. The growth of those elements was stunted and never allowed to fully bloom, except for Ms. Giddings. There should have been more superlative belly laughs from the audience as opposed to the smattering of chuckles I heard.

Review: THE MUSICAL COMEDY MURDERS OF 1940 at The Candlelight Theatre

Production value is above-par with Scenic Design (Jeff Reim), Lighting Design (Matthew J. Kator), Sound (Dennis Mahoney), Costumes (Don Allen), Properties (Anthony Connell), and Wigs/Make-Up (Clayton Stacey). The interior of the library is nicely appointed and the hidden passageway are well concealed. It would be nice to see the pen holder have a bit more prominence since it’s an integral item. Costumes are standard fare and serviceable. The abundant props are well sourced and fashioned. The lighting design meets the needs of the show.

While I am that person who watched 1940s movies on a portable black & white television with an antenna, other audience members are not. The pace in which the dialog is (needs) to be delivered can overwhelm those not accustomed to the style, as was the case with my show companions. When words and names whizz by, some are left processing what was just said and lose focus on what is happening now. Luckily, you don’t have to catch every single line to understand the ending, because it is clearly unraveled for you at the very end - all tied up with a nice little bow. If you like testing your sleuthing skills during a mystery, one might be frustrated with this one. So, go into this show with an openness for silly entertainment and leave your detective kit at home. Enjoy!

The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940
Written by John Bishop
Directed by Micki Sharpe
Runs May 13th thru June 25th

The Candlelight Theatre
2208 Millers Road
Wilmington, DE 19810
(302) 475-2313


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