Direction: Robert Bartley
Set Design: Clare Floyd DeVries
Costume Design: Samantha Rodriguez
Sound Design: Kurt Kleinmann
Prop Design: John Harvey
Music Direction: Ricky Pope
Production Stage Manager: Cathy O'Neal
The Singer: Simone Gundy
Harry Hunsacker: Kurt Kleinmann
Nigel Grouse: Ben Bryant
Desmond Livingston: Christopher Curtis
Zoey Gardner: Charissa Lee
Art Nichols: Ben Schroth
Lazslo Killian: Gordon Fox
Alison Stevens: Bailey Lawrence
Walt Mitchell: Greg Phillips
Lt. Foster: Chad Cline
Miriam Andrews: Susan Mansur
Betsy Baxter: Leslie Patrick
Reviewed Performance 1/5/2012
Reviewed by Kayla Barrett, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Harry Hunsacker, the would-be "world famous detective and aspiring actor", takes the audience on a unique journey with this 1940's murder mystery radio show The Frequency of Death! Harry is portrayed by the playwright and creator of the trademarked production style Living Black & White, Kurt Kleinmann. If you have never been to one of Kleinmann's shows, you have missed a spectacular visual experience! The play was good, and while slow-going at times and anti-climatic, it reached you with its charm and comedy. And did I mention it's in black and white?
I was initially excited and curious about going to see a black and white play. As a designer I could imagine the challenge of recreating the look and feel of black and white movie pictures on a live stage. I didn't know what to expect but I anticipated a strong technical production. My mother accompanied me to the theatre. We took our seats and admired the gorgeous Eisemann Center venue.
Fifteen minutes before the show started, and again during intermission, a spotlight shone on beautiful lounge singer Simone who set the mood, singing among other classics, "Stormy Weather" and "Pennies from Heaven". Just before curtain the Production Stage Manager Cathy O'Neal introduced the show with the usual cell phone silencing speech and then she asked the audience for a show of hands "Who has been to a Living Black & White production?" My mom and I were shocked to be the only members of the audience who did not raise our hands! "You two must be from out of town", O'Neal jokingly quipped. I was impressed by the number of local supporters!
When the lights went down and the curtain opened, I was in awe. The first scene of the play was visually striking. Some part of me was expecting the actors to look like statues. It took a couple of seconds for my eyes to adjust and take in the sight. The stage really did look like a black and white movie! The lighting counteracted the makeup and costumes so perfectly, and the actors did not look dull like one might expect. They simply looked like vintage movie characters! Despite the obvious limitation of color the designers still managed to create a visually interesting aspect to the show using texture, lights and hues. The set made you feel that you were in an old radio station. Clare Floyd DeVries went to great lengths detailing the stage. The set was carefully marbled throughout and even had tiny windows above the doors, and a huge chandelier to accentuate the Art Deco style.
It is in the first scene that you meet the bumbling Harry Hunsacker and his intelligent but humble assistant, Nigel Grouse played by Ben Bryant. Harry dreams of being a detective and frequently refers to himself as a "world famous detective and aspiring actor". Harry is likened to Abbott and Costello with silly physical business and dumb lovable charm. Nigel patiently deals with his friend's stupidity and loyally follows him when Hunsacker is asked to hone both his acting and detective "skills" to participate in a mystery challenge on the air at the WKIL radio station.
At the station, audiences meet more stereotypical characters ripped from classic flicks. You meet Harry's detective nemesis Lt. Foster, drunk old socialite Miriam Andrews who chases around elderly, and wealthy sponsor Lazslo Killian of Killian's Ironized Coffee. You also meet stern radio manager Desmond Livingston, a regular business man who means business, ditzy blonde bombshell Alison, the tomboy eager-to-get-ahead Zoey, the sweet girl-next-door Betsy Baxter, shy but creative sound artist Art Nichols, and a man-of-many-voices, Walt Mitchell.
The first half of the evening develops into the whodunit murder mystery acted out by the characters in a radio show within the show. They stand behind microphones and zip through the script in a variety of voices while Art played by Ben Schroth struggles to create the sound effects from his modest collection of props. One after another, Art's goofy sound gimmicks had us laughing.
During the radio show, Greg Phillip's performance as Walt stood out. It was entertaining to see his character come alive on the radio with his many differing voices and highly animated body expressions. Ben Bryant as Nigel offered high energy to move the play along, and he delivered his part with ease as though he were born to play Nigel. Another memorable role was that of Miriam Andrews played by Broadway's Susan Mansur. Her drunken gold-digging (or should I say diamond-digging?) antics had the audience giggling as she stumbled around with an air of grandeur, boasting her radio stardom. Mansur is remembered for her role as Doatsey Mae in the original production of Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and Truvy in Steel Magnolias. Her performance in Frequency of Death proved her great talent. Audiences watched her intently to see what she'd do next.
Gordon Fox as Lazslo played a perfect counterpart to Ms. Mansur. His character seemed to all but wither in his old age but he displayed hilarious energy when keeping up with his saucy love interest. Fox had some funny and lively bits, considering his character nearly expired! Bailey Lawrence as Alison created a unique character whose squeaky voice and sultry mannerisms poke fun at the sex symbols of old.
The radio show presses on until manager Desmond Livingston played by Christopher Curtis warns the cast that if their ratings don't improve the radio station will be shut down. Then a player is electrocuted by a faulty wire and the studio is taken over by a mysterious voice known only as Dr. Big. He tells them if they don't comply with his orders he will kill them one by one! Who is Dr. Big? And what does he want? During intermission, audience members are allowed to take a vote on their suspicions for a chance to win a prize.
The second half of the play consists of characters running around frantically as they come up with solutions and point fingers. The plot isn't completely clear, it seems to run off track, and with many characters on stage at once, is at times hard to follow. Kleinmann's character becomes more involved in the second act where he really gets to play detective. There are some cute "Who's on Second?" type comedic dialogue in the script during these parts.
His character was very likeable and I could see why audiences return to see him in the Living Black and White series - there are 16 of these spoofs so far! However, I believe audiences returned for the comedy more so than the mystery or plot. "Who needs proof when you have conjecture?" is Hunsacker's motto. While the story was not altogether coherent and the play ran about twenty minutes too long, Kleinmann proved himself an inventive playwright. The black and white concept was sheer genius, and he has found his niche in comedy creating both physical and verbal cues for laughter throughout his plays.
The designers were a huge part of the success of this production. The lighting itself displayed the beautiful set and guided the eye to the action in subtle light changes, while making dramatic changes when appropriate. The lights were so important in this show; too much, too little or the wrong color would have ruined the illusion, but Sam Nance's design was flawless. I was also impressed with the costumes.
Samantha Rodriguez's designs used variety in fabric, patterns and shades while perfectly representing the trim classic style of the American 1940's. One favorite was the dress worn by Betsy. All outfits were thoughtfully planned and helped audiences distinguish between the many characters. The director had a challenge with this script but ultimately portrayed a black and white spoof which took audiences back to their favorite classic films. References were made to old flicks in the form of staging and sound.
There were too many characters to go into detail about each one without writing a novel but I thought that the cast made a great comedy ensemble that poked fun at the stereotypes in the genre. If you want to go to a play for a good laugh and a spectacular visual display, The Frequency of Death! is the show for you.
THE FREQUENCY OF DEATH
Thursdays?Saturdays at 8:00 pm, and Saturdays/Sundays at 3:00 pm.
Tickets are $20 Thursday, $30 Friday & matinees, & $35
Performances are at two locations:
Through January 22nd at Eisemann Center, 2351 Performance Dr.
Richardson, TX 75082
www.eisemanncenter.com / 972-744-4650
January 26th ?29th at MCL Grand Theater, 100 N. Charles St.,Lewisville, TX 75057. www.attpac.org
214-880-0202 or go to the AT&T PAC box office