As the curtain rose on the Pirate Road Production of "Murder! She Mumbled," a mysterious host was preparing to welcome several equally mysterious guests to his eerie and mysterious mansion in a Godforsaken and mysterious place called Pirate Road.
By the time the curtain lowered on the final act, two dead bodies had been discovered, the murderer had been revealed and the residents on the real Pirate Road in Newport Beach had savored yet another outstanding production by neighbors Joe and Mary Robinson, in what is becoming an annual tradition in this Back Bay community.
More than 175 people crowded into the Robinson's front yard Saturday to see 10 neighborhood youngsters ham their way through two acts of a musical whodunit, featuring everybody's favorite sleuth, Agatha Crusty.
It is the third year that the Robinsons, both former schoolteachers, have put on a show featuring neighborhood children. And each year the crowds have grown larger and more appreciative of the surprisingly polished productions.
The first show two years ago was a lark to give bored neighborhood youngsters, newly released from school, something to do. Now the kids and their parents won't let the Robinsons quit.
"After the first year, everyone had so much fun we couldn't not do it," said Mary, who usually directs the productions.
The Robinsons were also eager to help their own two children develop a healthy sense of self-esteem and confidence.
"For years, I would get kids who would come up in front of the class and they were so shy," said Joe, who has authored all three productions. "We wanted our own kids to grow up and not be shy. I think that's the main purpose of this."
No hint of bashfulness was evident Saturday afternoon as the young thespians, who range from 7 to 12 years old, completed their final rehearsal. Most of them have performed in all three productions and all say they have been bitten by the acting bug.
"It's so much fun, it's something I want to do when I grow up," said Katie Dunne, 9, who played the vampish Lola in "Mumbled," but in real life is a star soccer player.
Sara, the Robinsons' 12-year-old daughter, whose credits include a South Coast Repertory production of "A Christmas Carol," described the hazards of trying to perform with the driveway as a stage.
"The heat!" she exclaimed. "And it's kind of hard when the airplanes and cars go by. But this year's is the hardest so far because we have more lines to learn, and accents too."
Indeed, this year's production featured a veddy proper English butler, a French maid who is not quite what she seems, a hard-of-hearing count, his upper-crust daughter and a Texas tycoon who goes by the improbable name of Rico Verdi.
The plot had something to do with a bankrupt savings and loan, a Nevada ranch polluted with toxic waste and the selling of illegal mustard gas to the Irish Republican Army. By the end, though, the formidable Crusty had nabbed the murderer (it was Lola, after all), the audience had learned a few valuable environmental lessons (not recycling the garbage proved to be the cook's undoing) and the kids were already clamoring for next year's production.
The Robinsons aren't sure what next year's plot twists will be, but they are determined to retain what they call the "quaint, amateur" nature of the popular shows. (The Newport Beach Police Department this year gave the family permission to block off the street in anticipation of the crowd.)
"Sometimes we think it would be so much easier being in a building, but we have such a great time out here," Mary Robinson said. "The whole neighborhood pitches in. I don't know if we want to trade the kind of freedom we have with it now."