There's something about the very funny "Murder's a Drag" that conjures the past.
It might be seeing the same cast who first performed the play in Orlando a decade ago in this reunion production.
Or, of course, it may be because the play spoofs old weeper movies — "Mildred Pierce," for example — with a touch of film noir thrown in for good measure.
But the feelings of nostalgia are most evident in the air of affection for scenery-chewing leading ladies and their films even as the fine cast is sending them up. The actors are in on the joke — and so is the audience, creating a delightful mood of camaraderie between what's happening on stage and those of us watching the comic mayhem.
The show plays like a sketch from the old "Carol Burnett Show," in which Harvey Korman and Tim Conway just happened to be playing women.
In this case, it's local actors Tom Vazzana, Louie Gravance, Dennis Marsico and John Graham who don the wigs and dresses. (Only David Kelley avoids cross-dressing, but he's costumed in as little as possible.)
And just as the camera would zoom in for a close-up of Burnett and cohorts on a signature line, here the spotlight finds the leading ladies as, with a wink to the audience, they breathlessly deliver lines inspired by the likes of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.
"Why can't you treat me like I would be treated by any stranger on the beach?" wails Dinah Moorehead (Vazzana), nearly quoting Crawford in "Mommie Dearest."
Dinah is in a pickle, you see. Having killed her louse of a husband, she is forced to — gasp! — take a job, opening a chicken-and-waffles luau in Hawaii. (Hence, the beach reference.)
But this does not sit well with her ambitious, avaricious daughter (Gravance) — who also has an eye on mama's new man (Marsico).
Actor Graham also wrote the play, and thankfully he didn't take the lazy way out. Framing all the one-liners and homages, there's an actual storyline, which gets more engrossing as characters' secrets are melodramatically revealed until the suitably implausible climax.
Kudos to Graham, also, for not relying on smutty humor to get laughs. Sure, there are a few risqué moments — a time-honored part of the appeal of putting men in dresses — but nothing racier than what you'd see on a 9 p.m. TV sitcom.
And his clever script references all eras and genres: "You want fame? Well, fame costs," a character snaps in steely Debbie Allen ("Fame") mode. Later, another simpers, "I'm a pretty girl," straight out of "Gypsy."
The cast makes the most of all of this. Vazzana, as Dinah, is the lynchpin of the story and he embodies the grande dame, complete with dazzling costume changes. My favorite: an Esther Williams floral bathing cap and swimsuit … with stockings.
Marsico and Gravance play multiple parts. Marsico makes a shockingly quick change from a debonair sea captain to a female journalist — her hairy legs become part of the jokes.
Gravance flips back and forth between Dinah's daughter Nita, with breathy voice and hard-as-nails demeanor, and family housekeeper Carol Nan, all overbite and attitude. In one scene, he performs both roles to great effect simultaneously, half hidden behind a couch using wigs and a blow-up doll.
The actors will riff on anything that strikes their fancy: When a passing train is heard, it's mentioned. When the music from "Shout," playing next door at Winter Park Playhouse, bleeds into the theater, it becomes a punch line.
And sometimes, just like on "Carol Burnett," the actors crack themselves up at the ridiculousness of it all. It just fuels more laughter in the audience.
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See for yourself
•What: NanciLu Productions presentation of 'Murder's a Drag,' a comedy by John Graham
•When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, through March 26
•Where: The Master Class Academy, 711-B Orange Ave., Winter Park
•Call: 407-645-4000Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times