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BWW Review: MURDER AT THE HOWARD JOHNSON'S at Desert Theatreworks is Funny and Imaginative.

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This Production Improves Upon the Talky Script.

BWW Review: MURDER AT THE HOWARD JOHNSON'S at Desert Theatreworks is Funny and Imaginative.
Dentist Mitch (Matthew Yenesel) restrains Arlene
(Daniella Ryan).

MURDER AT THE Howard Johnson'S, by Ron Clark and Sam Bobrick, flopped spectacularly on Broadway - it ran for four post-preview performances in 1979. Community theatres, including Desert Theatreworks (DTW), however, have given it a new lease on life. DTW's accomplished cast, creative staging, wonderful set design, fantastic sound and lighting effects, and the addition of a subplot acted silently by the scene shifters, make this production well worth seeing.

MURDER AT THE Howard Johnson'S has the feel of a Neil Simon farce, even down to the sexism, but the script is not as clever. Like some of Simon's works, it is too talky in spots. However, the script does provide the framework for an hour and a half of laughs, especially with DTW's visual enhancements.

BWW Review: MURDER AT THE HOWARD JOHNSON'S at Desert Theatreworks is Funny and Imaginative.
Paul Miller (Herb Schultz) touts his sexual prowess,
while his wife disagrees.

The story follows the antics of three odious characters, Arlene Miller (Daniela Ryan), Paul Miller (Herb K. Schultz), and Dr. Mitchell Lovell (Matthew Yenesel), who are caught in a love triangle and spend their time trying to do each other in. This love triangle bears no resemblance to that of the dignified Phantom of the Opera, his Christine, and her Raoul - instead the three people jostling to come out on top with the right partner here more closely resemble characters from The Three Stooges or the Marx Brothers.

The Millers have been married for a l-o-o-o-ng time, and Arlene, at least, is sick of her spouse. She engages in an affair with her dentist, Dr. Lovell, and would really like to leave Paul for him. However, it is the 1970's, and divorces in many states are hard to obtain without a spouse's consent, especially for a cheating partner. Since Paul has no intention of granting Arlene a divorce, there is only one solution: murder. Arlene and Dr. Lovell plan to lure Paul to a room at a local Howard Johnson's hotel and off him there. Only, things do not quite go as planned, either then, or on two other occasions when the three get together during the next year.

For those too young to know, Howard Johnson's (or HoJo's, as it was lovingly known) included a chain of restaurants similar in price and quality to Bob's Big Boy and Denny's, featuring fried clam strips and 21 flavors of ice cream. The family-oriented hotel chain, which today is part of the Wyndham brand, was roughly equivalent to a Holiday Inn. Both the hotels and restaurants were instantly recognizable in the 1960's and 1970's because of their distinctive orange roofs and cupolas.

BWW Review: MURDER AT THE HOWARD JOHNSON'S at Desert Theatreworks is Funny and Imaginative.
A cheap noose appears.

The cast in the DTW production of MURDER AT THE Howard Johnson'S is fabulous. Ms. Ryan, who can play both serious roles and comedy, convincingly turns herself into a shallow femme fatale who really can't make up her mind what she wants out of life. Her spirited performance keeps the action going through the talky parts of the script. Mr. Schultz, who, in real life is a humorous, friendly person, turns himself into a shallow nebbish who can't figure out why the wife he professes to love is unhappy. Watching the third actor, Mr. Yenesel, in the role of the good-looking, middle-aged ladies' man dentist with only a few morals, was bittersweet for me. This is because the late Ed Lefkowitz specialized in such roles at DTW before his untimely death. However, Mr. Yenesel, who, like Mr. Schultz, is making his DTW debut, does such a fine job as the screwball dentist that audiences have a new actor to fall in love with for this type of role. I hope DTW audiences will see more of both Mr. Schultz's and Mr. Yenesel's comedy in the future.

BWW Review: MURDER AT THE HOWARD JOHNSON'S at Desert Theatreworks is Funny and Imaginative.
The latest backup plan.

The production's success does not just belong to the cast. Lance Phillips, the artistic director (and one of the set designers), is a proponent of "movement theatre." The director, Rebecca Mc Williams (also a set designer), obviously follows his philosophy, and greatly improves upon the thinly scripted material by adding humorous, non-musical choreography. But the funniest innovation, in my opinion, is the use of the scene-shifters to silently act out a subplot that I doubt appeared in the Broadway production. Specifically, stage manager Adrianna Reyes and sound operator Robert Guenther, dressed as a hotel maid and bellhop, respectively, move the furniture and then interact. In each scene shift, their story progresses. On one occasion, they also encounter one of the speaking characters. I have never before seen such an entertaining way of rearranging a set, and hope that DTW will include more of these silent scene shifter subplots in the future.

The sets, props, sound, and lighting all contribute heavily to the enjoyment. For one thing, the pre-show music includes a radio commercial for the Howard Johnson's chain that emphasizes the comfortable, respectable nature of the accommodations - surely not the kind of place that someone would expect a pair of lovers to select for a murder plot.

BWW Review: MURDER AT THE HOWARD JOHNSON'S at Desert Theatreworks is Funny and Imaginative.
The scene shifters (Adriana Reyes and Robert Guenther) steal the scene.

The three sets look a lot like three rooms in a 70's hotel, albeit they seem nicer than the rooms in most family-oriented hotels and motels from that period. The clever props include a 1970's era dial telephone and a boxy, cathode ray tube television set, with a rabbit ear antenna attached. Timm McBride's hair and wig design are terrific, and suitably over the top; he also has done a fine job with the makeup design. The lovely costumes evoke the 1970's without slavishly copying the styles. Sound and projection designer Jeff Mazer includes bits of snarky sound effects that add to the atmosphere. Phil Murphy's lighting designs (lighting board operated by Violet Feath) are, as usual terrific - they, too, enhance the atmosphere, without being unduly intrusive.

BWW Review: MURDER AT THE HOWARD JOHNSON'S at Desert Theatreworks is Funny and Imaginative.
The cast (including the scene shifters).

I have only two complaints: One of the actors stumbled over some of the lines, but I suspect that this will be resolved by the second weekend of performances. The bigger problem from my viewpoint was that a character pointed a prop gun at the audience, directly where I was seated. I was considering whether to duck, when the individual put the gun away; my reaction was probably caused by the tragedy on the RUST set a few weeks ago. I would prefer that the character point the gun at the ceiling, instead of at the audience.

DTW's production of MURDER AT THE Howard Johnson'S is fun, well-acted, creatively staged, and funny, despite the script's being talky in spots. My two complaints do not diminish my conclusion that most audiences will laugh their way through this show; the show is well worth attending for those seeking light entertainment.

PHOTO CREDIT: PAUL HAYASHI

MURDER AT THE Howard Johnson'S will run for two more weekends, Thursdays through Sundays, through November 21st. Evening shows are at 7:30. Matinees are at 2:00 p.m. All performances take place at the Indio Performing Arts Center, 45175 Fargo Street, Indio, CA 92201. Check the ticket purchase information at www.dtworks.org for specific prices and schedules or call (760)980-1455.

Proof of COVID-19 vaccination, either physical or electronic, is required to attend DTW shows during the 2021/2022 Season. You will be asked to provide such proof when entering the lobby for your performance. If you forget to bring your proof, every effort will be made to reschedule your attendance based on availability.

The rest of the season's offerings consist of:

WINTER WONDERETTES, Written & Created by Roger Bean (December 3-23, 2021).

This seasonal celebration finds the 60's girl group"The Wonderettes" entertaining at the annual Harper's Hardware holiday party. Featuring classic holiday pop hits from the 50's and 60's.

ALWAYS, PATSY CLINE, By Ted Swindley (January 7-February 6, 2022).
Based on the true story of one wild night in 1961 Houston, when single mom Louise Seger became fast friends with her idol, Patsy Cline. Featuring Patsy Cline's music.

Neil Simon's I OUGHT TO BE IN PICTURES (February 11-March 13, 2022).

Herb Tucker is a struggling Hollywood screenwriter suffering from writer's block when his forgotten past shows up on his doorstep in the form of Libby, the teenage daughter he abandoned, along with her mother and brother, years earlier.

LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, Book and Lyrics by Howard Ashman & Music by Alan Menken (March 18-April 10, 2022).

A musical send-up of '50s B movies that has devoured the hearts of theatergoers for more than 30 years.

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