MURDER HAS NEVER BEEN SO FUN!
by randy hope
Mystery and murder seems to be taking on new life in Coronado this spring. This time however, it’s complete with Nazi saboteurs, secret passageways, flickering lights… and, well, the blizzard of the century? That is indeed the case as the Coronado Playhouse presents The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940, on stage now through the beginning of May. This ingenious and wildly comic romp spoofs the great murder mystery movies of the 1940s. However, one of the biggest mysteries surrounding the production is, in fact, about the production itself.
Questions have long abounded as to whether The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 is truly a musical or play. While it does contain snippets of songs from Marlene Dietrich, Sophie Tucker, and White House Merry-Go-Round, it boasts original music by Coronado Playhouse’s Musical Director Erich Einfalt, there doesn’t seem to be much singing that takes place. Those behind the murder mystery helped clear any confusion.
“In fact, this is not a musical,” according to Coronado Playhouse Director Nick Reeves, who along with the non-musical, musical mastermind, Einfalt, spoke at great length with The Rage Monthly about the non-musical, musical production, err murderous show. Intent on solving the mystery surrounding the murders staged on Coronado, we dug a bit deeper to discover there’s something very funny and quite intelligently confusing making its way to the city across the bay.
“It’s all about a comedy that’s about a musical, wrapped up in a murder mystery,” Reeves explained, admitting the musical within the production “is honestly not a very good one.” However, the director assured us the production they have staged, about the mediocre musical within, is a well-balance comedic-thriller, full of intelligently written slapstick comedy that’s mixed with enough dark mystery and mayhem to leave everyone scratching their head – that is if such a description hasn’t already done so.
The storyline of The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 is set at the Westchester estate of a wealthy “angel,” where mayhem ensues when a motley crew of characters gathers in the mysterious mansion to pitch a Broadway musical to potential backers. Revolving bookcases, hidden passageways and secret identities give way to a riotous homage found in the thrillers of Hollywood’s heyday. The cast of culprits finds no one is who they seem, as the Stage Door Slasher keeps knocking ‘em dead to see who makes the final cut.
Suddenly trying to figure out how to categorize, what is best and most safely dubbed a “stage production” or simply a play, seems to be the least challenging aspect of twists and turns happening for the folks of Coronado.
“One of the biggest challenges began with bringing the set itself to life, because it is a character really within itself in the play,” Reeves said. He explained that the German expressionistic motif, with very large angles, gives the architecture a very dark almost haunted look. “Generally the production is done on much larger stages than what the Coronado has to work with. Coming up with a way to tell the story and make it visible to the entire audience throughout the show at these various angles and levels was a distinct hurdle to overcome.”
Still that isn’t the only thing setting the Coronado Playhouse’s production of The Comedy of Murders of the 1940s apart from the other companies that have staged the play.
“The play is particularly unique in that everybody who does it has to write their own music,” explained Einfalt, who wrote the music for the show. “All you get is lyrics and dialogue and everyone who does the production has to write their own original music for the script,” said the musical director, who admitted he cannot pick just one piece to call his favorite, since he wrote them all.
This expands the musical style of many plays produced by Coronado Playhouse, since both Einfalt and Reeves also did the underscoring for the production. “We’ve written music that is played to go along with the show to sort of build anticipation, heighten the tension or set the mood for that particular scene,” he said, noting that using live music in the background is something that is not typically seen in many playhouse productions. “It is, however, something which we try to do as much as we can because it ads extra dimension to shows,” Reeves continued.
It’s an aspect that adds to the already multidimensional topsy-turvy tale the New York Times called a “kind of crossbreeding of Charles Ludlam’s The Mystery of Irma Vep and Terrence McNally’s It’s Only a Play, seasoned with a soupcon of Noises Off.”
The folks at Coronado wholeheartedly agree with such a description of the show, as Irma Vep is a satire or spoof of theatrical and film genres that include Victorian melodrama, farce, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, Reeves explained. “The play ensures cross-dressing by including a clause that the actors must be of the same sex. In a similar way, Musical Comedy Murders is a spoof or satire of 1930s/’40s old dark house/mystery movies, in particular, The Cat and the Canary, and farce,” he said, noting Musical Comedy Murders also includes a cross-dressing character.
It’s also much like Noises Off – a farce based on looking at a show from behind the scenes. “In a similar way, Musical Comedy Murders takes you behind the scenes of a backer’s audition for a musical called White House Merry-Go-Round,” Reeves explained. “It exposes the foibles of the actors and creative team.”
Going on to expose challenges he faced as the head of the maddening mix of mayhem, Reeves admitted as part of such an eclectic it can sometimes be difficult finding and maintaining the comic timing required of a farce and/or screwball comedy. “There is a maxim that comedy is much more difficult to do right than drama. And it is true – comedy is less forgiving. And even though this is a comedy/thriller, a delicate balance must be maintained,” he said.
The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 runs through Saturday, May 6 at the Coronado Playhouse, located at 1835 Strand Way in Coronado. Tickets range from $20 to $25. For more information and to purchase tickets, call 619.435.4856 or visit coronadoplayhouse.com.