I was ecstatic when I found out the premise of Musical Comedy Murders of 1940: a group of musical-theater people snowed in at the stately mansion of a rich socialite are stalked by a serial killer. My imagination went wild with visions of dim chorines decapitated, pretentious directors eviscerated, derivative songwriters drawn and quartered, no-talent choreographers hung by their heels, and off-key singers with their throats ripped out—all executed for their collective theatrical crimes against humanity.
Sadly, as fun as that premise sounds to any serious theater critic who's suffered through Guys and Dolls, Grease, or Bye Bye Birdie, the Guignol Ten Little Indians I imagined has yet to be written. It's a damn shame, too, because my fevered imaginings are a lot more exciting than the community-theater stylings of playwright John Bishop's stale murder mystery spoof currently at Stages.
With the best stable of actors in Orange County and solid technical values—in this production a well-realized, inventive set and lighting design by Jon Gaw and Kirk Huff—Stages has talent to burn. The crime is that such talent is put to the service of this woefully unfunny pile of crap. Perhaps the script reads funnier than it plays, but it dwells mostly on an endless, chatty, uninteresting back story that is neither scary nor funny. A couple of murders are tossed in, but it was never completely clear to me whether they were even related to the main story or to an idiotic Nazi subplot. When things finally begin to kick into gear in the second half, the play's over, and it's too little, too late.
Director Amanda DeMaio's heart doesn't really seem in it; the production's pacing is labored, and her staging is uninspired. The actors need a heightened acting style to make even the few funny bits work, but they deliver their lines in a bored, matter-of-fact style devoid of timing that swallows their punch lines and robs an already weak play of the little wit it has. Patti Cumby's performance as a drunk librettist is the lone exception: she steals the show and serves as a reminder of how this stinker should be played if the rest of the cast can just work up the energy.
Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 at Stages, 400 E. Commonwealth, Fullerton, (714) 525-4484 or (714) 708-5995. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m. Through Sept. 29. $12-$15.
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