When you go to see The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 at Rockville Little Theatre — and you should — prepare to be confused. This is not a bug, it’s a feature. The comedy takes your brain on a loopy roller-coaster ride of multiple identities, preposterous backstories, accents thick enough to cut with a knife, and plenty of actual knives, swords, cleavers, razors and guns — but, this being a comedy, no blood to spoil the glamorous period costumes (by Stephanie Yee).
The first order of confusion is that The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 is not a musical. It is a play about the production team of a new musical meeting to mount a backer’s audition at the estate of a renowned Broadway angel (or are they??). There are some snippets of songs and lots of talk about chorus girls, but that’s as far as the “musical” part goes. The second confusion is that The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 is not from the 1940s. It is actually a fairly recent play, opening on Broadway in 1987, but author John Bishop has certainly done his homework, basing the style on a number of classic mystery movies. Bishop provides an authentic air with long lists of the era’s movie stars, and plenty of old jokes, both corny comic one-liners and inside jokes among the assembled theater folks. (It will particularly delight people who remember celebrities past like Louella Parsons and Bob Hope, but such knowledge is not required.)
The action gets off to a brisk start with a scene of extended physical comedy as the mystery murderer tries to hide his (?) first victim. For a while after that, the confusion is more perplexing than amusing as the suspects are assembled in the country house during the inevitable blizzard. (Some initial problems with mic levels made some of the introductory exposition less than clear; hopefully, these will be ironed out as the production goes on.)
The ambitious set, the mansion library (designed by Diana Rodriguez-Tylka and Steven Leshin, dressed by Reina Williamson) takes advantage of the Fitzgerald Theatre’s large stage, with normal exits and entrances plus multiple secret passages where the killer undoubtedly lurks.
Director Michael Abendshein makes good use of the space, ratcheting up the chaos and comedy and keeping it churning. Some of the best bits involve the players breaking into squabbles or side-discussions, talking over each other, and totally ignoring the fact that several people have been murdered. There is also a “Who’s On First”-style palaver among several characters that reaches delicious levels of delirium.
Fight choreographer Amanda Tatum is indispensable in a show with this much physicality. In her hands, the multiple fights, stabbings, bottle-clonkings and hauling about of victims, which could be awkward, are very funny indeed.
Accent coach Bill Spitz has his work cut out for him, too, with several Germans, an Irish tenor, an Italian, a tough NY cop, and several extremely affected Mid-Atlantic theater people to pull off, and his efforts pay off handsomely.
The actors all handle this chaos, silliness, and slapstick with aplomb. Karen Winokur as the hostess who is having way too much fun trying to catch a killer, Mickey MacIntyre as a suspiciously slimy director, and Amanda Wesley as a pompous producer are all a joy to watch. Jessie Duggan and Daniel Dausman make charming romantic leads.
But the real standouts are Margo Weill as a volatile German maid (or is she??), and Laura Searles as a flighty lyricist who is far too fond of the bottle. It is hard these days to pull off a comic drunk who is convincing rather than cringe-worthy, and Searles, with all her different levels, physical and vocal, is peerless. One of the funniest sequences is when she is struck with inspiration and blithely waves away all murder and mayhem in order to re-write the second-act opener.
All in all, The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 is a capably confounding, amusing and entertaining farce. Can you guess who done it? Who knows? Does it matter? Not a whit. Just jump on the roller coaster, hold on, and enjoy the loopy ride.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours, including a 15-minute intermission.
Rockville Little Theatre’s The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 plays through February 10, 2019, at The F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre, 603 Edmonston Drive, Rockville, MD. For tickets, call 240-314-8690 or go online.
Michael Kelly, Bobby DeAngelo; Patrick O’Reilly, Erin Kelman; Roger Hopewell, Ian Swank; Light Designer, Jim Robertson; Sound Designer, Matthew Ratz