The Play-Goer: 2nd Star’s Musical Comedy Murders of 1940

The acting is tight, the pace is fast, the one-liners fly and people die

photo by Nathan Bowen The first victim of the Stage Door Slasher is discovered! Depicted are Bernice Roth (Erin Lorenz), Roger Hopewell (James Huchla), Nikki Crandall (Christa Kronser), Marjorie ­Baverstock (Jeanne Louise), Ken de la Maize (Andrew Parr) and Michael Kelly (Wendell Holland).
      Take some Neil Simon-like one liners, add a dash of the door-slamming slapstick of Noises Off, mix with some World War II political intrigue, a bunch of mistaken identities and hidden passages in a dark mansion, and what do you get? The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940, running through February 24 at the Bowie Playhouse. 
      2nd Star Productions is known for going big with big casts in big musicals. Musical Comedy Murders is one of the occasional smaller non-musical efforts by the troupe, with a cast of 11 and a beautifully realized single set. The play itself, written by John Bishop and debuting in the late 1980s, ­didn’t set Broadway ablaze. But director Jane Wingard and a hard-working well-choreographed cast put a nice spin on what could have been just another overdone murder mystery parody.
      The time is December 1940. The place is the mansion of eccentric and rich Elsa Von Grossenknueten (Heather Tuckfield). The ostensible purpose is to present a new play and seek its financial backing.
       The guests, we learn, are pretty much the creative team behind a recent flop notable because three chorus girls were murdered by the mysterious stage door slasher. They are Irish actor Patrick O’Reilly (Gene Valendo); theater director Ken De La Maize (Andrew Parr); singer and dancer Nikki Crandall (Christa Kronser); bad comic Eddie McEuen (Nicholas Mudd); producer Marjorie Baverstock (Jeanne Louise); and songwriters Roger Hopewell (James Huchla) and Bernice Roth (Erin Lorenz).
       Death follows as a mysterious and murderous hooded figure (Ben Rollins).
       One of the first to die is Von Grossenknueten’s stern German maid, Helsa Wenzel (Beth Terranova). But she keeps returning. Posing as a butler is undercover cop Michael Kelly (Wendell Holland).
        Each character has a peculiar trait that adds to the comedy, and to the mystery. 
       Terranova does a fine job in several guises. Her characters were an audience favorite despite her fast German staccato that at times rendered her lines inaudible. Valendo’s switch from O’Reilly to … well, I won’t ruin the surprise here, but it was impressive. Mudd’s sincere innocence gave his character’s bad puns hilarious heft. Lorenz’s comical turn as the librettist who seems to find a new song idea in every murder was funny with each melodramatic faint.
       Parr’s pompous director lists every celebrity in any movie he’s worked on — with none of them released. Baverstock’s upper crust language includes words like divoon and martooni. Why, we don’t know, but as delivered by Louise it’s a good gag.
        The acting is tight, the pace is fast, the one-liners fly and people die. Hidden passages are braved, identities change, accents move from country to country — and soon enough the murderer is revealed.
        In lesser hands, actors in parodies can tend to focus on getting laughs rather than being believable. Wingard and her cast don’t fall into that trap; they give us real characters, and that sincerity makes the sight gags and comedy work. The occasional punch line that falls flat may be more the fault of the playwright than of the actors.
       This entertaining production is light and fun. It deserves to be seen by bigger audiences than the couple dozen who attended opening night.
Costumes: Linda Swann. Props: Joanne Wilson. Set design: Jane Wingard. Lighting and sound design: Garrett Hyde and Jane Wingard
About 2 hours 10 minutes with one intermission. Playing thru Feb. 24: FSa 8pm, Su 3pm plus Feb. 24 3pm, Bowie Playhouse, Whitemarsh Park, $22 w/discounts, rsvp: