THE MUSICAL COMEDY MURDERS OF 1940by John Bishop
Pocket Sandwich Theatre
Directed by Carol M. Rice
Stage Manager - Devon Miller
Assistant Stage Manager - Alexandra Cook
Set Design - Rodney Dobbs
Costume Design - Suzi Cranford
Lighting Design - Jeff Vance
Properties - Lindsey Humphries
Sound Design - David H. M. Lambert
Lighting Director - Phil White
Sound Technician - Tony Banda
Scenic Artist - Robert Stribling
German Dialect Coach - Kelly Moore Clarkson
American Dialect Coach - Virgil Optic
Helsa Wenzel - Staci Cook
Ken De La Maize - Travis Cook
Joe Cucinotti - Eddie Mccuen
Kenneth Fulenwider - Michaeil Kelly
Lauren Hearn - Marjorie Baverstock
Sylvia Luedtke - Bernice Roth
Michael B. Moore - Roger Hopewell
Lindsey Schmeltzer - Nikki Crandall
Walt Threlkeld - Patrick O'Reilly
Kim Winnubst - Elsa von Grossenknueten
Reviewed Performance: 2/25/2012
Reviewed by David Hanna, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Bertolt Brecht wrote this statement around 1922, in an attempt to tear apart the stuffy, pretentious standards of classic German theater. In Dallas, there's really only one theater that comes close to the idea of Brecht's "smokers' theatre", despite prohibiting smoking in the venue. Pocket Sandwich Theatre has been open since 1980, serving up hot food and melodrama to audiences of all kinds. Unfortunately their latest production of The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 doesn't fit the aesthetic and personality of the unique environment they provide.
Author John Bishop's show is possibly the most aptly named production in Broadway history. It's a murder mystery set in a house full of secret passageways that is being used to rehearse a new Broadway musical. It also happens to be set in 1940. Hence, the title of the show. The play isn't rocket science but it's not meant to be a complicated psychological thriller - it's a broad, character-driven comedy.
The show is also full of jokes that fall completely flat. Numerous references to the time period are casually dropped as though anyone would know what they are. Bad puns are crammed into the script that ruin any momentum the scene gains. Bishop's script clearly has a very specific audience, but even then it doesn't allow the performers to make any comedic headway. The writing causes more groans than laughs, and by the time the action picks up the audience loses interest.
The problems with the script alone are enough to derail the show but director Carol M. Rice doesn't use the strengths of Pocket Sandwich's space to her advantage. When you walk into Pocket Sandwich, you're immediately immersed in conversation, laughter, and food. There's no thought to suspending disbelief at Pocket Sandwich - it's plainly obvious that the audience is about to see a show. Bishop's script, however, is a farce that requires complete commitment to the character.
Rice tries to straddle the line between these two worlds, and creates a mess in the process. The characters are drawn so broadly that the audience can't identify with any of them. It's almost like watching a cartoon. Yet Rice never acknowledges this silliness to signify this is an ironic take on the murder mystery convention. The choice to play the piece as a straight farce rings incredibly false in a space filled with clanking silverware and pitchers of beer. By not allowing the actors the latitude to acknowledge the silliness of what they're doing and the detachment of the audience, Rice throws away the most interesting aspect about the space she's working with. In doing so, the director cuts the legs out from under the production.
The actors put forth their best effort in trying to keep the audience engaged. All of the performers are fully invested and committed to their characters. Of particular note are Michael B. Moore as Roger Hopewell and Sylvia Luedtke as Bernice Roth, who shine through with consistent laughs and perfect reactions. They both hit their jokes with perfect timing and are constantly invested throughout the show. The entire ensemble has great chemistry and commitment, but because of the direction it seems to fall flat.
The design for Musical Comedy Murders is completely functional, without much deeper thought given to any element. It's interesting to see set designer Rodney Dobb's sliding bookcases and revolving paintings onstage. Costume designer Suzi Cranford is accurate in her portrayal of the period. None of it seems to matter, though the design is completely practical. There's nothing in the costumes to signify the characters' true motives or emotional backgrounds. Perhaps the designers are trying not to reveal the murderer, but in doing so only further impair the audience's ability to relate to any of the characters.
It's not that Musical Comedy Murders should live up to Brecht and the "smokers' theatre." That would be imposing a standard Pocket Sandwich isn't trying to meet. The show is meant to be pure entertainment, and nothing else. Yet Pocket Sandwich Theatre doesn't manage to reach that level because the script doesn't fit the aesthetic of the theater. The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940, with all its warts, is at least an entertaining script. But this production straddles the line between straight farce and tongue in cheek melodrama, making a confusing mess out of a simple comedy.
Pocket Sandwich Theatre, 5400 E. Mockingbird, #119
Dallas, TX 75206
Plays through March 31st
Thursday-Saturday at 8:00pm, Sunday at 7:00 pm
Food and beverage service available 1 1/2 hours before show time.
Tickets are $10 Thursday, $15 Friday, $18 Saturday, and $12 Sunday.
$2 off for seniors (60+) and juniors (12 and under)
Box Office is open 2-6 pm daily. Call (214) 821-1860 or visit www.pocketsandwich.com for information.