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BWW Reviews: A Very Gifted Cast! That's WHODUNIT at Broadway Rose

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It must be extraordinarily difficult to choose productions for a theater that specializes in musicals. You can only do the classics (Carousel, West Side Story) and the old reliables (The Music Man, The Pajama Game) so many times. You can try programming for a younger audience (Grease) or a nostalgic boomer crowd (Forever Plaid), or you can try to be edgy (Rent, Parade, the collected works of Stephen Sondheim), but these can alienate audiences - especially if you don't have the talent pool to make them work.

Eventually you have to go with the cute little shows. Some of these are composer revues (Jacques Brel, Ain't Misbehavin'), some of these are sketch comedies (I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change), and some are just silly (Nunsense). Yet most of them do what they're supposed to do: give the audience a good time without too much heavy lifting from the cast, the crew, and the theater's budget.

Broadway Rose tends to do well with these lighter shows; Lucky Stiff and Band Geeks were two recent productions that didn't fill me with joyous anticipation, yet both turned out to be solidly entertaining. Which brings us to their latest production, a musical by Ed Dixon called Whodunit. The title alone tells you wnat it wants to be: a fluffy comedy with a few chipper songs, making fun of the world of the murder mystery. The show is not well-written; Mr. Dixon's songs are very slight, and his attempts to create clever rhymes in the Lorenz Hart mode are just plain awful. But he does provide the director and the cast with plenty of opportunities for good old-fashioned silliness, and thankfully Broadway Rose has just the people to accomplish the task.

The show opens with a song so poor (and so ineffective in setting the tone of the show) that I feared for the whole evening, and when the second song turned out to be a sincere ballad for the heroine I started to fidget. But after that we got a strong dose of comedy and creepiness, and as the mystery elements kicked in and the bodies began to pile up, I relaxed and enjoyed myself thoroughly. Director Annie Kaiser can't do much with the show's opening, but she keeps her cast busy, adding in bits and shtick that made the show funnier than it must have been on paper, and she chose her actors very well. She was aided by musical director Mont Chris Hubbard, who managed to make Dixon's songs sound sprightly and classy, and set designer Charles Murdock Lucas, who provided a set worthy of a real murder mystery.

I'm not going to go into the plot, in part because there isn't much, and in part because there are some surprises involved. You may manage to figure out what's going to happen before the characters do, but the way some of these elements are presented is surprising in itself, and that adds to the fun. Suffice it to say that a spinster rents a mansion in the middle of nowhere, moves in with her maid, and invites her niece to visit. The niece brings along a gentleman friend. Of course there's a creepy, officious butler, and once things turn homicidal a detective shows up who's right out of an old TV show.

Debbie Hunter, as the spinster heroine, can't do a thing with those opening scenes; the writer makes her too serious and burdens her with boxcars full of plot exposition. Once that's out of the way, however, Hunter gets to use her lovely voice and serious features to great comic effect, and she's downright hilarious in Act Two. Joy Martin, as the niece, has a lovely voice of her own, and she gradually loosens up and joins the fun as well; she's partnered well with Sean Powell, as her love interest, who has his own manic side. Thomas Slater is all business as the butler, but he manages to find a creepy-funny side to the role as well. Mike Dederian is terrific as the detective, trying to be all seriousness but continually making mistakes along the way, and singing some of the oddest songs in the whole show, such as "It's Harder to Move a Body Than You Think." In smaller roles, Jon Andrew and Shawna St. John make unexpected contributions along the way.

The standout, however, is Jennifer Goldsmith as Libby, the maid. She's not asked to be serious at any point in the proceedings, and she's lobbing wisecracks at us from the moment she enters the play. Goldsmith employs a broad Cockney accent as a weapon, turning even the most innocuous of lines into a comic masterpiece, and when she finally gets a big number of her own she sells it a hundred percent. I wasn't worried about her survival; clearly no one was going to kill off the best character in the show.

Whodunit isn't going to make you cry, and you won't leave the theater humming any of the songs. But you'll laugh, and you'll have a great time, and you'll marvel at how much mileage a talented cast and crew can get out of some really lame jokes. And really, isn't that reason enough to see a show?


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From This Author Patrick Brassell

Patrick Brassell is the author of five published novels and five produced plays. He has directed, produced, and designed sound for about fifty theater productions, (read more...)