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BWW Review: The Game's Afoot with West Coast Premiere of CLUE in La Mirada

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Cute and amusing in a dad-jokes kinda way, this play with game-play origins definitely won me over.

BWW Review: The Game's Afoot with West Coast Premiere of CLUE in La Mirada
Heather Ayers, Harrison White Ted Barton, Jeff Skowron, John Shartzer,
Mary Birdsong and Sarah Hollis

It has been a tense and, at times, nerve-wracking 18 months since I last experienced a live theatrical event and I am (still cautiously) excited to return as both a theater-loving audience member and as a theater critic for local shows in the area. To say simply that "I miss the theater" is quite honestly an understatement. Yes, I've had countless streaming theater views since the shutdowns of March 2020, but--I mean, c'mon--nothing compares to the sheer thrill of being seated once again inside a theater to witness live performances... good, bad, and even in between.

Originally, my first assignment back for BroadwayWorld was going to be a Cabaret performance from a Tony Award-winning actress, but that event was postponed at the last minute. While that show would have been a nice, baby-step back into the world of live performances--a 90-minute intimate concert that would have been much more socially spaced-out and not as audience-packed--I can genuinely say that I was pleasantly surprised by my attendance of the fully-packed Opening Night performance of the West Coast Premiere of CLUE, a cheeky, old-fashioned comedy of errors directed by Casey Hushion, which continues performances at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts through October 17, 2021.

Based on the well-known board game distributed in North America by Parker Brothers (which was later folded into toy and game manufacturer Hasbro) that itself inspired a cult 1985 Paramount Pictures film of the same name written and directed by Jonathan Lynn, CLUE--the stage play--features the same infamous names and, yes, weapons and rooms synonymous with the classic whodunnit game. Writer Sandy Rustin, along with additional writers Hunter Foster and Eric Price, have revived the same colorful characters and personalities of the film and have transposed them into a madcap, 90-minute puzzle that's mostly silly and engagingly fun.

The main objective of the play mirrors the same objective of the board game: to solve a murder--specifically, to identify who did the crime, which room the crime took place in, and with what weapon was used to do it. While murders as an overarching theme is ordinarily a serious, tragic bit of business, here it's mostly played for broad, amusing chuckles that usher one scene of high-jinks after another. Sure, it doesn't get too deep or philosophical, but, then, it is clearly not designed that way.

BWW Review: The Game's Afoot with West Coast Premiere of CLUE in La Mirada
Sarah Hollis, John Shartzer, Mary Birdsong, Heather Ayers,
Ted Barton and Harrison White

So how does the production achieve this winningly? Besides the goofy ridiculousness of its premise, the cast of characters--and the terrific ensemble tasked to bring them to daffy life--make CLUE a fun, distracting period piece that will play well with audiences not looking for anything that heady or too intelligently witty to get the laughter going. Chockfull of physical comedy, sight gags, and dorky goodness, this board game come to life is a wonderful distraction from 21st century realities.

Like the film, the play centers around the mysterious machinations of a dinner party gone completely awry at a grand mansion on one dark and stormy night in 1954. Six invited guests--all with instructions from an anonymous host to conceal their true identities by taking on specifically-named aliases--arrive and are greeted by the estate's Butler, Wadsworth (played with hammy goodness by Jeff Skowron), assisted by the housemaid Yvette (Cassie Simone) and the cook (Rachel McLaughlan).

If you've ever played the board game, the pseudonyms used by the six guests will certainly amuse in their familiarity: There's prim-and-proper Mrs. Peacock (Mary Birdsong), the hilariously clueless Colonel Mustard (Harrison White), the boozy Mrs. White (Heather Ayers), the analytic Professor Plum (Ted Barton), the ribald Miss Scarlet (Sarah Hollis), and, finally, the nerdy Mr. Green (John Shartzer, whose dives into physical comedy gets tons of laughs throughout the evening).

As the evening progresses, we learn a bit more about each of the invited guests, and that they all have two specific things in common: that they all reside in the Washington D.C. area, and that their real-life personas are all being blackmailed by none other than the very proprietor of the mansion, Mr. Boddy (Michael Cavinder), who emerges after dinner claiming to have a briefcase filled with evidence that would bring inescapable scandal to each of the six guests. Mr. Boddy demands that they all start paying him double or, perhaps, in lieu of it, that one of them can murder the butler, who is the only other person to know all their secrets, including Mr. Boddy's.

BWW Review: The Game's Afoot with West Coast Premiere of CLUE in La Mirada
The Cast of CLUE

To that end, Mr. Boddy hands each of the six guests different objects to use as weapons to off Wadsworth: a candlestick, a knife, a lead pipe, a gun, a rope, and a wrench. Wadsworth is, understandably, shocked with this turn of events. Mr. Boddy, to ensure the murderous deed would be "anonymous," decides to turn off the lights. A loud commotion happens in the dark, and when the lights come back up, the room is startled to find Mr. Boddy, dead on the floor. Who could have done it?

Thus begins a series of humorous sleuthing and investigation amongst the survivors, each of whom are equally suspicious of one another, considering any one of them had proper motivation to do the deed after each learns of each others' true identities and what they are each being blackmailed for by the now deceased Mr. Boddy. The room-by-room clue-finding not only unfurls for some funny, awkward situations but also--ha!--murder after murder after murder. For those who haven't seen the film, I won't spoil where it goes from the death of Mr. Boddy, but all I can say is expect a multi-directional ending that addresses the unpredictability of the board game that inspired it (oh, and also that the 1985 film actually had three different endings depending on where/when you saw the film in its original theatrical run).

Directed with an eye that reflects the traditions of effective comedies of manners, helmer Hushion allows for an environment of situational yuks to keep things moving and buoyant at all times. Even scene transitions are punctuated with visual gags and smile-inducing movements that allows funny moments to sustain (Lee Savage's super neat transitional pop-out sets and Steven Young's striking lighting designs definitely help with the momentum).

But despite an almost stacked-on story held together with silly putty and jittery scaffolding, what makes CLUE enjoyable is how the ensemble cast--outfitted in perfectly adorned period costumes designed by Jen Caprio--is let loose to play in this trapeze act of criss-crossing interactions without a net, so to speak. Over-exaggerated, over-the-top performances are normally a cringe-worthy sight in most productions, but, here, they are welcome, almost wholly necessary assets for the play to fully sell itself and to be as charming as it is. Skowron truly goes full-tilt in his facial expressions and body mannerisms as Wadsworth, and his performance spills over and infects his fellow players to the point that each truly and genuinely tries to ham it up to the same level, particularly the adorkable Shartzer and the super-silly White. Subtle they are not, and thank goodness.

BWW Review: The Game's Afoot with West Coast Premiere of CLUE in La Mirada
Michael Cavinder, Jeff Skowron, Ted Barton, Harrison White,
John Shartzer (Back row); Sarah Hollis, Heather Ayers and
Mary Birdsong (seated)

So is this live production better than the film? Well, by the decibel of laughs I heard (and shared in) on opening night, I can say it just might be. Cute and amusing in a dad-jokes kinda way, this play with game-play origins definitely won me over.

Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ.

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Photos by Jason Niedle courtesy of La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts.

McCoy Rigby Entertainment and La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts presents CLUE, based on the screenplay by Jonathan Lynn, written by Sandy Rustin with additional material by Hunter Foster and Eric Price. Based on the Paramount Pictures Motion Picture and the Hasbro board game CLUE. CLUE features original music by Michael Holland and is directed by Casey Hushion.

The Cast for CLUE features Jeff Skowron as "Wadsworth," Heather Ayers as "Mrs. White," Ted Barton as "Professor Plum," Mary Birdsong as "Mrs. Peacock," Sarah Hollis as "Miss Scarlet," John Shartzer as "Mr. Green," Cassie Simone as "Yvette," Harrison White as "Colonel Mustard," Rachel McLaughlan as "Ensemble #1," Michael Cavinder as "Ensemble #2," and James Tolbert as "Ensemble #3."

CLUE features Scenic Design by Lee Savage; Lighting Design by Steven Young; Sound Design by Cricket S. Myers, based on original sound design by Jeff Human; Costume Design by Jen Caprio; Hair/Wig/Makeup Design by Kaitlin McCoy; Properties Design is by Kevin Williams.

Performances of the McCoy Rigby Entertainment presentation of CLUE at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts continue through Sunday, October 17, 2021. The theater is located at 14900 La Mirada Boulevard in the city of La Mirada. Parking is Free. For tickets, visit www.LaMiradaTheatre.com or call (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310


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