Review: Pioneer Playhouse serves up mystery, laughs


Holy tiddlywinks! It's a murder-mystery and a comedy surrounding musical theater - all at once. And it's pretty darn good fare that the Pioneer Playhouse offers in "The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940."

Directed by David Hilder, the play is set in a mansion in December 1940 in Chappaqua, N.Y. A group of theater-types are gathered to work on a new musical offering, but the pall of goings-on from a previous musical hangs over the proceedings. Before, a few of the chorus girls were killed. In tutus.

We meet the ensemble: Helsa Wenzel (Melissa Arleth), the austere, grim maid; Elsa von Grossenknueten (Patricia Hammond), the mansion's owner and gracious, if sly, hostess, who is a well-known theater supporter; Michael Kelly (Michael Muldoon), the chauffeur - and a bit more; Patrick O'Reilly (Paul Angelo), a charming Irish - maybe - actor who has a number of tricks up his tweedy sleeve; Ken de la Maize (Bruce Nicholls), the impatient director who might have something to hide; Nikki Crandall (Diana Cherkas), a charming, girl-next-door-type dancer who could hoof circles around the others - in more ways than one; Eddie McCuen (Matt Franta), a young, eager, wanna-be comedian who would do anything to impress the major players around him; Marjorie Baverstock (Elisa Abatsis), the slightly edgy producer who wants the fallout from the previous show to disappear; Roger Hopewell (Robert G. Hess), the flamboyant composer for the musical; and Bernice Roth (Marjorie Tatum), the drunken, buxom, waddling lyricist for the musical.


The mansion where the backers' audition is held has several hidden passages, gotten to through mysterious, sliding bookcases and closets. Additionally, the ensemble gets together in the midst of a blizzard that - you guessed it - tends to affect whether the electricity is working or not.

Ensemble pieces are fun, because the actors pretty much have equal time and say onstage. Tatum, Hess and Franta drew the biggest laughs from a mildly receptive audience. That trio had more overtly funny lines. Then again, most of the ensemble had at least a few cunningly humorous moments that were not, I think, fully appreciated by the audience at large. When Hopewell, after several nerve-wracking incidents, exclaimed, "I'm visiting the House of Usher," I laughed, because the visual that line brought me was priceless. A lot. And loudly.

And virtually alone, which is par for the course for me.

The performers build a certain amount of tension and anticipation as they struggle to solve the multiple mysteries of the plot, which flowed over into the audience. I believe we all were anticipating the unveiling of the answers.

The set, presumably orchestrated by technical director W. Mark Hayes, is lovely and elegant in its crimson/rose/burgundy and dark wood tones. Wardrobe mistress Sandra Brandt created eye-catching, colorful costumes for the actors for this period piece.

The performance I watched got off to a bit of a stop-and-go start, with a few technical glitches and erratic pacing. Although those never smoothed out completely, they did improve as the show progressed.

Murder mysteries, especially when they have a bit of sly humor, are fun and interesting to watch. "The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940" is no exception.

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