BWW Review: THE MUSICAL COMEDY MURDERS OF 1940 at Mad Cap Comedy And Improv Troupe
On October 24th through the 27th, MADCAP Comedy and Improv Troupe presented the John Bishop farce The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 at Newman University's Jabara Flexible Theatre. Under executive artistic director Cameron Carlson and wife Lana, the show was a night of pre-war, German societal commentary and comedy amid a mysterious murder mystery in a Chappaqua, New York City mansion setting. Starring Vonda Newby-Schuster, Mark Barlow, Mary Lou Phipps-Winfrey, Crystal Meek, and Steve Dunn among many others, the show was a perfect selection for tying into their previous show Hounds of Baskerville and for what was Halloween weekend in Wichita.
For those unfamiliar to the plot, it's worth mentioning that a murder takes place right at the top of show in the New York estate leading to a 'Clue' board game type of an adventure from start to finish among whacky characters trying to put on a new, stage musical. The characters come together, sometimes entering to the knock of 'shave and a haircut,' to create a new production to send to Broadway to avoid a flop despite that the last show they presented had three chorus girls killed by the 'stage door slasher.'
Appearing right after the opening murder sequence was Vonda Newby Schuster as mansion owner Elsa Von Grossenknueten, a name she would pronounce quick and fast with a robust German accent inviting her peers to collaborate; 'seven for lunch and four for dinner' to be exact. Schuster was great fun with her dialect which would sometimes be slurred and overexaggerated particularly on comedic dialogue and monologues about the 'Nazi European letters' or remarking about being simply and only show people to solve the mystery among evidence of a spiral notebook with clues and phone numbers. Speaking of over exaggeration and eccentricity, Mary Lou Phipps-Winfrey's acting fits the bill for her character Marjorie Baverstock who would comment 'Simply Divoon' instead of the old adage 'simply divine' for her remarks to ideas or recollections. She particularly was intriguing to watch when moving simple objects subtly in the study, such as a desk pen only to reveal hidden and secret passageways designed by set designer Dan Williams and Bob Lancaster which would allow the cast to maneuver into the hidden doorways or disappear suddenly to the beat of the slasher's impulse. Unfortunately, Phipps-Winfrey gets killed off at the end of the first act after Lancaster, eventually revealed to be the undercover cop himself asking who, what, when, where and why to solve the mystery in act two, pulls a sword out of her back. Lancaster was spot-on with his line, "Doesn't tell me a God damn thing!" when searching about evidence and clues in the murder room.
As the writer Ken De La Maize was Bob Wiley who held company auditions. Maize was good at coasting by the fact most of his writing works had not been released yet. But composer and lyricist team Roger Hopewell and Bernice Roth played by Steve Dunn and Crystal Meek respectively earned most of the laughs from the night being wild and fun cohorts. Dunn tinkered on the piano a couple of songs too to allow for perfect casting whereas Meek passed out to too much to drink in the second half making the audience completely forgetful she was even there only to be roused from her stupor to further make jokes about music and songwriting particularly during the iconic minute long blackout pondering if the show gets cancelled.
Mark Barlow had good diction, pacing, delivery and acting choices as Eddie McCuen, the struggling comedian trying to 'kill them with laughs' who goes from wobbly coward to brave hero during his character journey opposite love interest Jami Thomas as Nikki Crandall. The stage couple had wonderful chemistry and energy to match being able to play easily off of each other. Thomas, however, came off as the stronger, heroine than her counterpart who eventually reveals she is an intelligence officer ending up cracking the murder case. Mark Carlson, the final detective, will be joining the National Guard to do eerily similar work to the kind he portrayed. His Irish dialect was quite fun too!
Finally, as the Greek chorus of murderesses was Julie Williams, Terri Ingram and Gina Talbott Marx. All were entertaining to watch, particularly in instances of slurring the German accent on words such as 'hordervoures' for instance. Talbott Marx, who has a background in theatre education, was refreshing to watch especially during her confessions at the end revealing both motive and character as the stage door slasher with a love for vaudeville cabaret.
Technical achievements in props, set design and sound are worth noting. Properties by Lana Carlson were all time period appropriate however a large glass carafe swung often by actor Steve Dunn was concerning to watch for sake of actor safety. Luckily, no one was injured through the use of the decanter. Sound cues designed by Jacob Workentine included howling dog hounds tying once again into the season for the troupe from the previous Hounds of Baskerville. Finally, set design by Dan Williams, Bob Lancaster, and James Leggett were a great trio to come up with a smart box set that permitted several secret passageways for murders to appear and disappear along with a staircase centerstage which would lead upstairs to a potential second floor.
For more information on MADCAP's upcoming productions, especially Tartuffe by Moliere, be sure to like and follow their facebook page at www.facebook.com/MADCAPComedyImprovTroupe!