Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Two Evenings Aimed
Just about the sourest murder mystery parody I have ever viewed was written by playwright Neil Simon. In his 1976 film Murder by Death five famous literary detectives ranging from Charlie Chan to Miss Marple are summoned to an old mansion by oddball millionaire Lionel Twain to try to solve a murder that is about to occur. Each comes up with a silly and contrived solution. At the film's conclusion, one character removes a mask revealing that he is another character in disguise. This second character then removes another mask to reveal that he is yet still a third character. Thus the first two characters do not exist. This unlikely individual has engineered the evening's events (disguising himself as two fictional characters) to embarrass the detectives as vengeance for the contrived solutions to their novels. It does not matter that the actors playing these roles are different sizes and body types. The explanation makes no sense. Additionally, there are no subtle, cleverly planted clues to give the viewer an opportunity to solve the mystery. Simon's contempt and disrespect for the genre and his betrayal of his audience's commitment to the story.
While not as disrespectful to the genre as Murder by Death, John Bishop's 1987 Broadway (by way of the Circle Rep.) murder mystery comedy The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 is its cousin. In the late Bishop's lightest and most atypical play, the director, composer, librettist and producer behind the new musical, The White House Merry-Go-Round, have been invited to the Chappaqua mansion of rich Broadway angel Elsa Von Grossenknueten to audition their show for her. Joining them are three performers who have been hired to perform the script. However, this set-up is a ruse. It seems that the entire creative team had previously performed the same chores for a musical from which three chorus girls had been murdered by a serial killer known as the stage door slasher. New York City Police Sergeant Kelly has arranged with Elsa to bring them together at the mansion in order to further his slasher investigation.
There's more going on here. As the curtain rises at midnight before the gathering, Elsa's maid Helsa is grabbed from behind and seemingly murdered by a shroud-covered figure. Yet, Elsa is on hand for the next day's activities. Over the radio, we hear that Nazi saboteurs were discovered making a submarine landing, and that one remains at large. Patrick O'Reilly, an actor from New York, has a German accent and obscure knowledge about Elsa's father, an official under the Kaiser. Add a road-closing snowstorm, electrical blackouts, secret passageways, and red herrings galore.
The amiable, hardworking cast is most likeable. They convey the feeling that they are having fun with the complexities of the plot and their roles. Director Deirdre Yates directs in broad strokes. Although there is neither subtlety nor sharply and cleanly performed farce, the broad, low comedy performances are in keeping with the material. To borrow two of the many Hollywood names noted in Bishop's text, the humor in both the script and performance is more Abbott and Costello than it is Feydeau.
Ruth Darcy as the maid Helsa is so excellent when revealing another side of Helsa, that she brings believability and interest to one of Bishop's less likely twists. Angela Della Ventura is too larkish, arch and artificial as her employer, Elsa. The role of Nikki, the actress (actually, dancer) performing the audition, calls for charm, and Diana Cherkas delivers it in spades. Chris Barber is Eddie, an awkward actor (actuality, comedian) who wins Nikki's heart. Barber should up the charm to show us how. Christopher Yates plays the third performer, Patrick O'Reilly. Despite the fact that Yates displays the right tone, the role embodies the silliest, most annoying tendencies in the writing.
Bill Timoney plays boastful director Ken with aplomb. He also gets the evening's funniest lines. Ken has returned from Hollywood where he has directed films. When he names a film that he has directed, Nikki says, "I'm sure that I've seen it." Ken responds, "You probably have, but it hasn't been released yet." Georgette Reilly Timoney and John Correll nicely play the pompous composer and ditzy librettist, Roger Hopewell and Bernice Roth. Although a couple of bits of songs are heard, the humor in this material is muted. Linda Correll and Shaka Malik as the sergeant and producer lend able support.
There are a couple of lines which demonstrate how hard it is to do comedy. Ken has a mildly offensive joke which I think is meant to indicate that he is not a good guy. Timoney reads it in an innocuous, cute manner: "Take the garment district and dump it in the middle of an orange grove, and you have Hollywood." Did neither director nor actor realize the ethnic stereotyping in that line?
When Roger is being accused of plagiarism, Bernice says, "He certainly doesn't steal from Jerome Kern." I was amused at the implication that his music was too poor to even be ersatz Kern. But when Bernice then added, "He (Ken) steals from Sigmund Romberg," her intonation suggested to me that she was accusing Ken of plagiarism. It was only after giving that line some thought that I realized that the line was a put down of both Romberg and Ken.
In any event, laughter and applause flowed freely from a very happy and satisfied opening night audience. The silly and insubstantial The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 at the Bickford Theatre was clearly just the right ticket for them.
The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 by John Bishop; directed by Deirdre Yates continues performances (Thurs. Sat. 8 PM/ Sat. (11/24 only) - Sun. 2PM) through December 9 at the Bickford Theatre in the Morris Museum, 6 Normandy Heights Road, Morristown, NJ 07960. Box Office; 973-971-3706; online: www.bickfordtheatre.org.
The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 by John Bishop; directed by Deirdre Yates
The 117th Annual Triangle Show focuses on the University's home state. It is entitled A Turnpike Runs Through It A NewJersical. This show is essentially a revue with a slight book as a thread to link the songs and sketches. Thirteen undergraduates have contributed to the book, music and lyrics. The New Jersey references are mostly glancing and do not deal with the major concerns of Garden Staters. When departing from home base (Princeton University), perception and affection of matters New Jersey doesn't run deep.
The framing narrative is a bus tour of New Jersey. The tour guides are Cookie and Randy, young sweethearts who will have a rocky relationship until they make up at the final curtain. The bus driver is Gertrude, an elderly Jewish woman who has come up from Florida, her retirement home, to drive the bus. Not much mileage here. (And the word is "kvetching" not "kah-vetching".)
There is one number that deserves a long afterlife beyond Triangle heaven. It is a rousing marching song entitled "Woodrow Wilson." This infectious and exhilarating song has inspired the best work of choreographer Hans Kriefall. The sketch, music and lyrics for this sequence have been provided by Brandon Lowden. And what clever lyrics they are. A lyric highlight is the inclusion of Wilson's 14 points. The featured singer (the cast and players in each number are listed alphabetically, so it's not possible to identify individual performers) exudes abundant charm and pizzazz when she sings, "he gave us fourteen points, and I'd give him a million," and a male intones, "If we lived in Massachusetts, I'd marry him today." Wilson was a Princeton graduate who went on to be President of the University prior to becoming our 28th President.
Lowden also wrote the bright opening song "So Much to See," which provides a short list of New Jersey locations and people. The fact that the state is a center for drug companies inspires an insightful lyric equating drug companies with illegal street level drug pushers who get people addicted in order to generate sales. There's a sketch about a junkyard hobo hired on as a new guide whose punny name is "Hobo Ken." Puns abound throughout. There are any number of sketches involving early American history. Martha (not yet) Washington and her friends discuss George and other boyfriends ("they don't call them the minute men for nothing"), and Burr-Hamilton end up playing on their violins because one mistakes the word "duel" for "duet." This is just a tiny sampling of the plethora of puns which kept the friendly audience in stitches all night long.
The entire extended section set at Princeton University is delightfully entertaining. Hey, the cast and writers know and love the territory. There is certainly some self-congratulation here. And why not? Charlie Sneath (music and lyrics) includes a sense of irony in his "Making the Cut," when his Princeton admissions officers sing that what makes Princeton great is its low admissions rate.
I would like to suggest that the excursion to "northern New Jersey" for a "Mob Christmas" be excised or replaced when this shows does a Christmas-New Year's tour, and then returns to the McCarter for two more performances next spring. Employing mock Italianate, substandard New Jersey accents, we meet "Sopranos" types shopping at the "Blood Bath and Beyond," and on Christmas, "the girls sing ting-a-ling, the boys sing bada bing." I know that rudeness goes with the territory here, but the ethnic insults here offer little in the way of originality and the sense of superiority over a perceived inferior class leaves a bad taste. Perhaps a sketch satirizing the manifold failures of government and the political classes could be substituted. There are enough to fill an entire evening and more. (Does the Triangle know that New Jersey's governor is determined to sell the Turnpike of the show's title to a private company, even if the entire state is against it?)
All of the writers and performers are undergraduate members of the Triangle Club, and almost all of the professional production team are Princeton graduates.
Although women undergraduates have performed in the Triangle show since 1968 (the year before women were officially admitted to Princeton), the tradition of a drag chorus line has continued in each show through to the present one. Eagerly awaited, it capped the evening in grand style. This year, the Statue of Liberty (described as a Jersey girl) at heart is the inspiration. The busty chorus line is beautifully costumed in green and unmistakable Miss Liberty garb. The dancing ranges as usual from expert to "oy veh" with a full range of different levels in between. This is a great part of the fun which sends the audience into whoops of laughter. You need not be a Princeton insider of any kind to appreciate the sense of spirited fun which is pervasive here. The torchy (puns are contagious) song (lyrics by Callie LeFevre to music by Dan Berry) employed here is "Liberties." Its lyric concludes:
One could write quite a considerable piece analyzing that singular lyric. For the rest, A Turnpike Runs Through It can be best enjoyed by just giving oneself over to its youthful high spirits.
A Turnpike Runs Through It was performed Nov. 9 Nov. 10, 2007 by the Princeton Triangle Club at the McCarter Theatre Centre, (Matthews Theatre), 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ 08540. Box Office: 609-258-5050; online: www.mccarter.org. (Please see schedule of additional performances below.)
A Turnpike Runs Through It, The 117th Annual Princeton University Triangle Club Show. Music, lyrics and book by Dan Berry Rachel Heise Bolten, Daniel Eison, Jason Gilbert, Callie LeFevre, Brandon Lowden, Halcyon Person, Jason Pomerantz, Charlie Sneath, Mary Cait Walthall (also Writing Coordinator), Jonathan Weed, Chris Yarnell, Zach Zimmerman. Directed by Glen Pannell
Cast: Casey Ford Alexander, Jack Altman, Jeff Asjes, Brad Baron, Hannah Barudin, Katie Benedict, Chelsea Carter, Liz Dengel, Kelvin Dinkins, Jr., Bayard "Buddy" Gardineer, Laura Hankin, Billy Hepfinger, Dave Holtz, Stephen Lamb, Andy Linz, Caroline Loevner, Fiona McGuire, Willie Myers, Alexis Rodda, Emily Sandys, Jonathan Schwartz, Brittney Scott, Katie Seaver, Kate Siegel, Katie Wong, Zach Zimmerman
2008 Performance Schedule: