Fans of witty repartee, as well as of murder mystery and screwball comedy movies, will revel in the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre’s production of “The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940.” It opened on Friday and continues until May 21 at its theater on the Marian University campus in Indianapolis.
Written by John Bishop, this wacky farce, which premiered on Broadway in 1987, is based on several murder mysteries of the 1940s, including “The Cat and the Canary,” featuring a young Bob Hope.
Set in the library of a mansion in Chappaqua, N.Y., that is owned and inhabited by Elsa Von Grossenknueten (Jean Childers Arnold), the play, set in December 1940, opens with the murder of her maid, Helsa Wenzel (Marie Beason). The following scene involves a conversation between Elsa and a policeman, Michael Kelley (Freddie Basnight), who discuss an undercover effort. Both are unaware of the maid’s murder.
Eventually, a zany group of individuals shows up at Elsa’s invitation for a backer’s audition to a musical comedy they hope she’ll fund. They include the director Ken De La Maize (Bill Book); producer Marjorie Baverstock (Theresa Koleszar); two writers – Bernice Roth (Carrie Neal) and Roger Hopewell (David Wood); Nikki Crandall (Maria Souza-Eglen), a singer/dancer; Patrick O’Reilly (John Kern), an Irish tenor; and Eddie McCuen (Tyler Eglen) a comedian.
Soon, a member of this group is also murdered, leading to a madcap chain of events and absurd interactions that involve mistaken identities, forays into hidden passageways, and twists – all wrapped up at the end with surprise discoveries and revelations.
Directed by Robert J. Sorbera, this play, which stars some of Indianapolis’ most seasoned and talented avocational actors, suffered from some weak performances, but not enough to completely distract from what was nevertheless an enjoyable evening of entertainment.
Notable performances included those of Arnold as the free spirited Elsa; Book as the grandiose, name-dropping director; Souza-Eglen as the singer/dancer who knows more than she’s letting on; Koleszar, looking every inch a ’40s film star, as the pretentious producer; Wood as the sharp-tongued writer, always ready with a comeback; and Eglen as the second-rate comic looking for his big break.
Displaying a formidable talent for character development and physical comedy, and possessing impeccable timing, was Beason as the maid Helsa. Her portrayal, reminiscent of Cloris Leachman as Frau Blucher in “Young Frankenstein,” was hilarious and a definite highlight of the show.
Also exceptional for creating the detailed look, sound and clothes of the play’s pre-WWII setting was the entire production team, which includes Ryan Koharchik, set and lighting designer; Jean Engstrom and Barbara Riordan, costume designers; and sound designer Michael Lasley.
For “The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940” tickets and information, call the Civic Theatre’s box office at (317) 923-4597, or visit its website at www.civictheatre.org.