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Murder Mystery Farce Delivered With Pizazz and Charm

Times Staff Writer

Amateur theater doesn’t get much classier than the Laguna Playhouse version of “The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940" at the Moulton Theatre in Laguna Beach.

Directed by Joan McGillis with a savvy flair for histrionics, the entertaining shenanigans of John Bishop’s 1987 murder-mystery farce have an antic charm delivered with pizazz by a large and largely wonderful cast.

As the title might suggest, the playwright puts spoof before suspense. There are more secret passages, Nazi spies, coded messages, homicidal maniacs, double identities, triple identities, mistaken identities and dead bodies than the entire Mystery Writers Assn. of America could dream up.

The time is December, 1940. The place is Broadway backer Elsa Von Grossenkneuten’s mansion in the wealthy Westchester suburbs of New York City, where the cast and creators of a new musical have been invited, ostensibly to audition a new show but really to flush out the Stage Door Slasher who murdered three chorus girls 2 years earlier.

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Only moments after the curtain rises--as a sort of prologue for the mayhem to come--a maid is knocked off in the darkness by a hooded intruder and her body stashed in a closet. Then the lights go up with dazzling brightness on a vast, book-lined study and the guests make their entrances from all walks of show-biz life, like a mini-version of “Grand Hotel.”

First we meet Patrick O’Reilly, a ruddy-faced Irish actor who wears a monocle and speaks in a thick brogue of his dear old “mither.” Flawlessly played by Robert Kokol, O’Reilly can’t quite cover up a peculiar German accent or keep his heels from clicking to attention of their own volition.

Next comes Ken de la Maize, a smarmy Hollywood director full of high-flown sentiments about how good it feels “to be back in the theater,” which isn’t surprising since he probably holds the record for unreleased B movies. He is played (passably) by Jeffrey B. Schlichter.

Then there is leggy, gum-chewing Nikki Crandall, the seemingly mindless chorine who turns out to be one smart cookie. As Crandall, Jennifer Erin Brown gives one sweet performance.

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Two other absolute standouts are Jack Gallagher in a vibrant turn as comedian Eddie McCuen, the coward who gets the girl, and Michael Glover Leigh as fey composer Roger Hopewell, whose mincing gait and oh-so-jaded double-takes are works of art.

Not least among the stars of this show is costume designer Patricia McQuade. Her choices not only lend the production a special luster, they are period sendups themselves. Witness Eddie’s get-up as the ultimate ‘40s swell (brown, double-breasted blazer and white slacks) or Ken de la Maize’s virginal leisure suit, which looks like something Roy Rogers would wear to a lawn party.

Bravos, too, to set designer Steven Wolf Craig and lighting designer Stephen Shaffer. In the antic payoff of the second act, both the set and the lighting do everything but talk.

‘THE MUSICAL COMEDY MURDERS OF 1940'

A Laguna Playhouse production of John Bishop’s play. Produced by Douglas Rowe at the Moulton Theatre in Laguna Beach. Directed by Joan McGillis. With Punkin Tresselt, Marthella Randall, Cedrick Hardman, Robert Kokol, Jeffrey B. Schlichter, Jennifer Erin Brown, Jack Gallagher, Betsy Hewett, Michael Glover Leigh and Catherine Rowe. Set by Steven Wolf Craig. Lighting and sound by Stephen Shaffer. Costumes and set decor by Patricia McQuade. Choreography by Jennifer Erin Brown. Music direction by Mark Turnbull.


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