Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940
Grand Canyon University
Review by Gil Benbrook

Also see Gil's review of Hamilton


David Loewen, Nick Philips, Grace Cox,
Jessica Rumrill, and Hallie Unruh

Photo by Tim Trumble
The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 is a fun, silly, comical whodunit that will keep you guessing as to the identity of the killer at the center of its murder mystery plot. As the opening show in Grand Canyon University's 2021-2022 season, after being forced to present their productions last season outdoors and stream them virtually, it makes for a perfect crowd-pleasing, comical romp and a great way for GCU to reopen their indoor productions at Ethington Theatre.

Written by John Bishop and originally opening on Broadway in 1987 after an Off-Broadway run, The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 is a fast-paced show set in a mansion with numerous secret doors and passageways. The plot centers around a backers' audition for a Broadway musical that's being held at the upstate New York home of wealthy theatre patron Elsa Von Grossenknueten. The previous musical the backers' audition's director and creative team produced became famous when three female dancers in the show were murdered by a killer dubbed "the Stage Door Slasher." As the team rehearses songs and scenes with the cast, a snowstorm rages outside the house, the phone lines and electricity go out, and the cast of eccentric characters, some of whom are using secret identities, start getting bumped off while trying to determine just who amongst them is the killer.

I've seen numerous dramas, comedies, musicals and farces that Michael Kary has directed and he has always proven himself to be an expert at fight direction and physical comedy staging. His cast for this production deliver some terrifically staged comical fight sequences and scenes that feature bodies being humorously dragged across the stage and propped up against a piano, chairs and doors. Kary's direction also achieves cracker-jack timing of several sequences in which a door has to open or close at just the right time or an actor has to appear at just the right moment. Kary's direction and the cast's ability to deliver what's required of them result in many funny sequences and provide a few moments of suspense as well.

William Symington's set design is superb, with period furnishings and exquisitely detailed props, secret doors and passageways, and a second level landing. Brad Cozby's lighting and Daniella Brown's sound design combine to create some spooky and humorous stage images while the costumes by Nola Yergen and hair and makeup design by Hailey Strobel are both period appropriate and character specific. All of the creative elements help to evoke the 1940s time period as well as the atmosphere of a murder mystery.

The cast all do a fairly good job in bringing their comical characters to life. As two of the performers hired for the backers' audition who end up falling for each other, Grace Cox is warm and charming as ingenue Nikki Crandall and David Loewen is witty and funny as New York comic Eddie McCuen. Maddie Burgess is a hoot as the insufferable and sly German maid and cook Helsa Wenzel, and Abbey Yee is and funny and full of life as the eccentric hostess Elsa Von Grossenknueten. The group of creators for the show being showcased include director Ken de la Maize, played by Nick Philips; producer Marjorie Baverstock, played by Jessica Rumrill; and writers Rachel Hopewell and Bernice Roth, played by Hallie Unruh and Gloria Hartung. All four actors create unique individuals. Dalton Smith is full of fire as the police officer who is trying to find out who the killer is and Zac Ross is appropriately shady as the mysterious Patrick O'Reilly. The only slight downside to the performances is due to the fact that several of the actors have chosen to use accents for their characters, from a haughty Mid-Atlantic one to Southern and Irish, and sometimes they are so thick it's a bit too hard to understand the dialogue. Also, only the German accent used by Yee as Helsa and the Irish accent Ross uses for O'Reilly are truly necessary for the plot.

With superb creative elements, spotless direction, and an energetic cast, The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 at Grand Canyon University is intriguing, silly fun and an enjoyable theatrical treat for comedy and murder mystery fans.

The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 runs through September 19, 2021, at Grand Canyon University's Ethington Theatre, 3300 W. Camelback Road, Phoenix AZ. For tickets and performance information, visit events.gcu.edu/events/category/ethington-theatre/ or call 602-639-8880

Director: Michael Kary
Scenic & Properties Designer: William H. Symington
Lighting Designer: Brad Cozby
Costume Designer: Nola Yergen
Hair and Makeup Designers: Hailey Strobel
Sound Designer: Daniella Brown
Original Music: Michael Kary/Mark Huggins

Cast:
Elsa Von Grossenknueten: Abbey Yee
Nikki Crandall: Grace Cox
Eddie McCuen: David Loewen
Helsa Wenzel: Maddie Burgess
Michael Kelly: Dalton Smith
Patrick O'Reilly: Zac Ross
Ken de la Maize: Nick Philips
Marjorie Baverstock: Jessica Rumrill
Rachel Hopewell: Hallie Unruh
Bernice Roth: Gloria Hartung
The Masked Figure: Anna Mettes


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