Oh, it's simply divoon! The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 is a theatrical staple - following last season's Clue: The Musical, the time has come for Waukesha Civic Theatre to tackle another murder mystery farce. This piece features a mixed-bag cast of 10, all gathered in Elsa Von Grossenkneuten's house for more than just an audition... and the Stage Door Slasher is on the loose.
Photo by Carroll Studios of Photography.
This piece isn't an introspective, serious piece of theatre, and is thick with tropes and predictability. And all the better for it! The two-dimensional characters leave plenty of room for antics with accents, physical comedy, and missed connections.
The curtains open to a darkened room, where a cloaked figure commits the first of many murders. Vague silhouettes of elegant furnishings are visible, but little more can be distinguished. Then, as the lights come to full brightness, Scott Prox's stunning set is revealed; not only are shelves and tables filled with detailed set dressing, from overflowing books to antique art pieces, but the walls are almost entirely comprised of hidden entrances and exits. It is the physical embodiment of the seemingly impossible location for many a mystery.
Breanne Brennan draws significant attention onstage in her understated performance as the German maid, Helsa. While other performances strive towards grandeur and exaggeration, Brennan's deliveries are quick and simple. The interpretation doesn't demand laughs, and is rewarded more so because of it. Brennan allows the script to do the heavy lifting, which grants her the space to stand out in the particularly ridiculous moments.
In the second act, Michele McCawley's drunkenness as lyricist Bernice Roth is spectacular. The alternation between slurred communication and intoxicated contentment displays the full scope of drunken humor, and it is truly challenging to deliberate whether McCawley is actually under the influence.
With 8 other unique characters, the cast deftly navigates the drastically contrasting personalities in the text. However, director Carol Dolphin has the show running at a slow pace. With a company this talented, the audience would roar with the performance taken at quite the speed. The dead air between lines sucks the energy out of punchlines, and the audience loses out on some of the fast-paced humor of the script.
From Shakespeare and Molière to modern playwrights, farces have earned a permanent residence in theatrical repertory. The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 provides exactly what audiences are looking for from the genre: slapstick humor pasted to an absurd plot. This production doesn't reinvent the wheel, but it sure is a good time for an easy laugh.