Smile Politely

Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 is a hilarious who dunnit

If you don’t mind, I’d like to share a little recipe. It’s quite simple, and I think you’ll really enjoy it:

Take a couple heaping scoops of Agatha Christie. Add a couple large handfuls of Scooby Doo. Then throw in a healthy helping of Clue — include a dash of Tim Curry if you like things a little spicy. Finish with a sprinkling of Christopher Guest. Set your theater to whatever comfortable temperature your audience prefers, and then put the mixture on stage for just under two hours. And then hot dog! You’ll have a brilliantly funny, stunningly produced, helluva good time production of Musical Comedy Murders of 1940.

Directed by Mathew Green, the mayhem throughout Musical Comedy Murders (which will be referred to as MCM from now on) unravels entirely within the grand estate of Elsa Von Grossenknueten (Chelsea Collier).

Now. Before speaking too much about the cast and the direction of MCM, I must spend some time discussing the set and costume design.

Frankly, there is only one way to describe the set MCM — gorgeous. Filled with functioning secret passages and doors (not telling you where), this set is, by a wide margin, one of the most impressive I’ve seen here in Champaign-Urbana. And the costume design is equally stunning.

During the talk back following opening night, costume designer Sheri Doyle stated that both her and scenic designer Molly Ilten-Fullan wanted to give a feeling of immense wealth —which they achieved. The color palate, props (from the baby grand piano to the writing desk, and wine and scotch glasses), and the costumes, created and stitched by Doyle herself, were spot on for the era, and pull the audience right into the story. 

The icing on the cake was the impact of the visual effects (the crew created a terrific snow effect throughout the show), and sound design by Dominick Rosales. Weather and radio reports recorded just for the show pulled me in even further, and, to be honest, I forgot I was watching a play. For most of the show I felt like I was a part of the story. 

With larger ensemble casts, you would think it would be easier to choose stand out performances. While everyone in such productions put forth tremendous efforts, there are always a few that steal the show and shine brighter. This is not the case with MCM.

This was not a production where an actor or two carries the brunt of the show, and the rest of the cast provides support. MCM is a fine example of the old adage “there are no small roles.” It proves that a truly great show is a result of a collaborative and creative effort. It is the result of the individual and unique talents of each cast member coming together to form something very special.

The greatest achievement of both the cast, and Green’s direction, is their ability to walk up to line and stop just before reaching caricatures; an almost cartoony yet restrained performance that never relies on over-the-top stereotypes.

Chelsea Collier was hilariously brilliant as Elsa von Grossenknueten. With both humor and grace, Collier glided across the stage with ease getting laughs from the crowd like it was just another day at the office. From the moment she stepped on stage, it was an absolute blast watching Collier play with the bombastic, eccentric nature von Grossennueten’s character. 

The performance closest to crossing the line into caricature was Karen Hughes’ Helsa Wenzel. There were a few moments where I expected her to say “Dr. Jones,” or yell “Nein! Nein! Nein!” But it worked. In any other production it would have stood out like a sore thumb, but in this one it was perfect. Hughes nailed the stern, and, frankly, at times frightening, Wenzel. 

One of the best examples of how the cast leaned into the more cartoony aspects of their characters while avoiding complete caricature was Monty Joyce’s Ken de la Maize. Joyce could have easily could gone overboard and made de la Maize a highly emotional, melodramatic director always looking for the best shot. Instead, Joyce gave a subdued performance; one that made him seem as though he walked straight out of a 1940s movie de la Maize would have directed.

As Marjorie Baverstock, Jenny Gleason makes another stop on her C-U farewell tour and makes her presence known. She is delightful as Baverstock. There is a sort of brightness to her performance that makes watching her a joy. Her presence on local stages will be missed. 

Both Mallory Sellers and Quinton Ohlsson give inspired performances as Nikki Crandall, the endearing and quirking singer and dancer, and Eddie McCuen, the comedian who always has a punchline up his sleeve. While their individual performances are outstanding, it is when they are together that they truly shine. Their ability to bounce witty and silly banter off of each other is remarkable. Seller’s one-liners made me smile, and Ohlsson’s ability to wiz through jokes and alliterations breathlessly had me in stitches. I hope to see more and more of these two on C-U stages.

Like Sellers and Ohlsson, some of my favorite comedic performances came from Mindy Smith as Bernice Roth and Ed Pierce as Roger Hopewell. And it wasn’t always in the bigger, more climactic moments, but, rather in the subtleties of their performances. The side glances, mannerisms, and physical acting forced me to pay attention to both them for the entire show. Doing so was such a delight.

Jace Jamison pulled off the charming Irish actor Patrick O’ Reilly flawlessly; an almost Cary Grant aura to him. Well, if Cary Grant was Irish, I suppose. His Irish accent was a little cartoony, but it served its purpose well and did not distract or undermine is performance. Jamison has become quite the veteran of the C-U theatre scene, and per usual did not disappoint one bit.

Wesley Bennett is perfectly cast as the stoic, no nonsense, straight to the point Michael Kelly. Although still a little rough around the edges, Bennett’s performance proves that he belongs on a stage, and is coming into his own as an actor.

Parker Evans, although he spends a limited time on stage, gives one of his funniest performances of his young career. I wish I could say more, but you’ll understand why he was perfect in his role when you see the show.

From top to bottom MCM is an incredible achievement by everyone involved. From director Mathew Green, to the wonderful cast, sound design and run crews, rope pullers, and wig preppers, everyone should be congratulated on a spectacular production. 

Run and reserve tickets. Trust me, you do not want to miss this production. Marvel at the intricacies of the set and costumes, and the sweat that went into designing and building it all. Take in funny, honest, and endearing performances from the cast. And at the very least, support local theatre. Regardless, you’ll enjoy a night of twists and turns, laughs, and a show reminiscent of a show about a certain mystery-solving gang.

Musical Comedy Murders of 1940
Harold and Jean Miner Theatre
2400 W Bradley Ave
November 8-10, November 16-17, 7:30 pm,
November 11 & 18, 3 p.m.

Tickets are $15 for adults, $13 for students and seniors, and $9 for youth. They can be purchased here.

Photos by Jen Redwood

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