Review: The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 by City Theatre Company
by Brian Paul Scipione
The time: December 1940.
The city: Chappaqua, New York.
The scene: The Library.
The characters: Helsa Wenzel, Elsa Von Grossenknueten, Michael Kelly, Patrick O'Reilly, Ken De La Maize, Nikki Crandall, Eddie McCuen, Marjorie Baverstock, Roger Hopewell, and Bernice Roth.
Or, put another way, a maid, an eccentric mansion-owner, a cop, a singer, a director, a chorus-girl, a comedian, a Broadway producer, a composer, and a lyricist walk into the room . . .
If this gives you the impression that you're in for a bit of complex, madcap row of a play, then you win a gold star. The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940, a farce by John Bishop, debuted on Broadway on April 6, 1987. It's hard to speculate why Bishop, who also directed the production, thought the late 1980s was a good time to revisit the films and film personalities of the 1930s. At the time, these films were not accessible. They'd have to be caught on TCM or at an actual brick-and-mortar library. The production received favorable reviews from the New York Post, New York Times, and the Village Voice but closed August 01, 1987 after three-month run-on . The play remains a popular choice for high school, college, and community productions and reappears on the boards every few years or so. Austin audiences enjoyed it thanks to City Theatre’s artistic director Andy Berkovsky and his talented cast.
The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 is exactly what it sounds like: a homage and parody of the zany movies of the 1930's that starred Hollywood royalty such as Katherine Hepburn, Charlie Chaplin, Bob Hope, Judy Garland, and Cary Grant. So, it's no surprise that both the gags and the jokes are very, very, dated. A lot of the references may be lost on members of modern audiences who aren't film buffs. Much ado is made of the mansion’s secret passageways—so much so that it's hard to tell if this is tongue in cheek or a regular old redv herring. A multitude of characters reveal their true identities, maids and actors are murdered; we've got black outs, slapstick comedy played out in a very small space, foreign accents, period accents, flagrant stereotypes, utterly random plot twists, bodies in the closet, and exclamations such as “Jeepers” and “Divoon.”
The audience isn't meant to keep up with the meandering storyline. Herein lies the parody of the play. Yet, with ten actors and at least half that many more characters the plot is a bit exhausting. The dialogue is written to be recited in the marvelous infectious pace and manner of the Marx Brothers or Abbot and Costello. But Bishop has piled so many characters and so much obtuse vernacular in his play that it feels more like standing in a crowded elevator abuzz with nonsensical conversations. The costumes and impressively detailed set greatly aid the viewer in suspending disbelief, the story itself has little to no payoff, except that it's nearly self-deprecating in its onslaught of self-parody.
Fortunately, Berkovsky’s deft casting providese many moments of gleeful entertainment. They range from giggles to guffaws. Special mention must be made of the scene in which Bobbie Oliver as the dowager Elsa Von Grossenknueten attempts to give a speech she has clearly forgotten with the frustrated help of Aaron Hernandez as the undercover cop Michael Kelly. This comedy gold was expertly mined and invested, and rewarded by the audience’s roar of approval.
The City Theater’s The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 will be a real treat for those with encyclopedic knowledge of the 1930’s movie industry and those wishing to introduce their children to it. The attention to detail and the exuberance of the cast and crew of this production are exactly what Austin audiences have come to expect from Berkovsky's City Theatre, now in its impressive 17th year.
April 28 - May 14, 2023
1507 Wilshire Blvd.
Austin, TX, 78722
April 28 – May 14, 2023. Thursdays - Saturdays 8:00 pm. Sundays 3 pm.
Genesis Fellowship Hall. 1507 Wilshire Blvd. Austin, TX 78722.
General Seating $15-$18. Center Reserved $20-25. Group and student discounts.