Cascades Theatrical Company launches its first main stage production of the 2016/2017 season with "The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940," combining all the best traits from theatrical farce, broad comedy and drawing room mystery. Shows like this don't normally spend much time with characterization, yet "Murders" takes its time setting up the players in the first act.
"The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940" was written by John Bishop and first performed at the Circle Repertory Company in New York City, before it moved to Broadway and opened officially at The Longacre on April 6, 1987. It ran around four months before closing.
Bishop's script is ludicrously well-written. It simultaneously works as a joke delivery machine, a wonderful showcase for comedic actors and an expertly-crafted murder mystery. As funny as the show is (packing three or four jokes a minute), the whodunit aspect really kept me guessing all the way to the curtain. Just when I thought I had it figured out, the script piles another couple twists on to make the bottom fall out.
In this show, nothing is as it seems. The premise: the creative team of a recent Broadway show assembles for an audition at the estate of a wealthy woman looking to invest in a new musical. Most of them are surprised to see each other, as the last time they were all convened, a serial killer was murdering chorus girls in the cast of their Broadway production. The "Stage Door Slasher" was never caught—but now, a remote mansion in the middle of a blizzard is the perfect place for true confessions, hidden passageways and the act of fainting dead away.
The cast of characters is delightfully varied, and getting to know each player is a huge part of what makes the script so much fun. Elsa von Grossenknueten (Annie Tappouni) is the owner of the mansion, where she lives with her maid Helsa Wenzel (Joanna Tyler). Visitors to the estate include the undercover cop Michael Kelly (Austin Dilling), the Irish tenor O'Reilly (Robert Flanagan), the struggling comedian Eddie (John Alan Hulbert), the director Ken (Shane Ketterman), the chorus girl Nikki (Annie Trevisan), the producer Marjorie (Megan Robertson), the composer Roger, (Bill Alsdurf) and the lyricist Bernice (Kelley Ryan).
As bodies start piling up, watching these disparate, frightened and self-absorbed Broadway folk stumble their way through a murder mystery keeps "The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940" a fast-paced and refreshing piece of theater. While there are plenty of puns and broad jokes, the characters are all so bizarre and interesting in their own right as to make the show more performance-driven than the average drawing room murder farce.
First-time director Emily Cady has cast the show with a keen eye for talent. The show has a deep bench of great actors that all have plenty of moments to show off their stuff. From Alsdurf's deadpan deliveries to Robertson's scenery chewing to Hulbert's pitch perfect 1940's throwback, there is never a moment that this rock-solid group isn't a blast to watch.
Cady also seems like the perfect choice as director. Her work with the actors is confident and breezy and she's not afraid to run a moment three or four times until it fits her vision exactly. "I've been acting since the age of 10," says Cady. "It's been a complete and utter passion of mine since then. I was one of those kids who didn't want to be herself because nobody liked herself. So what do you do when nobody likes you? You become someone different. Theater was the perfect outlet and I found that I thrived in it and loved it. It helped me become more confident to just be me."
"The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940" is a fast and breezily entertaining night of theater. The rehearsal I watched had some minor pacing issues and a few dropped lines, but nothing serious that won't be fixed by opening night. If this show is a sign of the quality of CTC's upcoming season, then Bend has a wealth of riches to look forward to in the upcoming year.
"The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940"
Friday, Aug. 26-Saturday, Sept. 10
7:30 pm evenings, 2 pm matinees
Cascades Theatrical Company, 148 NW Greenwood Ave., Bend
cascadestheatrical.org for tickets