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The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 (04/06/1987 - 08/01/1987)


New York Daily News: "But Will It Play in Peoria? We Think So"

"The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940" opened originally at the Off-Broadway Circle Repertory Theatre January 7, 1987, and transferred to the Longacre April 6, 1987.

There is a mistaken notion that plays which open in New York make important statements about Art and Life. New York is really a tryout town, where plays are presented in the hopes that they will be suitable for amateur and community theaters across the country.

Good news for the boondocks! There's no need to revive "Ten Little Indians" next season. You can do "The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940" instead.

John Bishop's farce has a set with secret panels, a plot with surprises about every four minutes, and a cast that includes a Hollywood director, a wealthy and affected lady producer, Nazis, veteran musical comedy writers, undercover agents and a comic who makes Jan Murray look fresh.

The dialogue spoofs the snappy style of Old Hollywood. ("Most dames don't want to get serious with a comic," the would-be Henny Youngman tells a chorus girl.)

Occasionally Bishop has a snappy style of his own, as when he has the disgruntled director say, "Just drop the Garment District in an orange grove - that's Hollywood."

Even though the humor often seems synthetic and strained, Bishop does manage to sustain a high level of silliness throughout the evening. Some of it might be more effective if the actors weren't always trying to let you know they know how silly it is.

The two most successful performances are by Bobo Lewis and Richard Seff as the aging, tireless musical comedy writers, still so obsessed with their work that even murders taking place around them are merely inspiration for lyrics. Lily Knight as a Nazi maid, Dorothy Cantwell as a chorus girl and Kelly Connell as the comic also have funny moments among the forced ones.

The physical production is splendid, and the show is indeed full of harmless merriment. You can't help wondering whether, when they do it next year in Kankakee, if they're less arch it won't be a lot funnier.

New York Daily News

New York Post: "Razor-sharp 'Musical Murders'"

"The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940" opened originally at the Off-Broadway Circle Repertory Theatre January 7, 1987, and transferred to the Longacre April 6, 1987.

Funny! Very funny! Despite its preposterous and unprepossessing title, John Bishop's spoofy and spiffy whodunit, "The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940" - which opened at the Circle Repertory last night - is, indeed, enormous fun.

There are murders galore (well, only three, but it seems like more), mysterious maids, slashed chorus girls, a Nazi agent, a black Irish cop, a comedian, an agent from Naval Intelligence and many, many others.

It is set in a Westchester mansion, filled to the brim with sliding panels and secret corridors and surrounded by inpenetrable snow.

No one is quite what they seem, but most of them seem to be in show business. Even the ones who aren't.

Bishop - still best known for his heavily effective Broadway drama "The Trip Back Down," starring Michael Moriarty - has never attempted anything remotely like this before, nor has the usually somewhat worthy, if not somewhat solemn, Circle Rep.

Yet this comic gloss on a mystery thriller - a genre which itself has become almost extinct except as an endangered species on British television - is delivered with stunning confidence and assurance.

Its strength comes in part from the sheer diamond wit and diamante showbiz glitter of Bishop's writing. Even his corn is succulently served.

Equally important is the remarkable fact that the story sustains itself, and actually puzzles, right up to a final curtain that - final miracle - manages not to be anticlimactic.

The mood and atmosphere of the piece recalls "The Cat and the Canary," perhaps deliberately. It has roles that might have been tailored for the young Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard in the comic 1939 Hollywood movie, not John Willard's far more serious 1922 Broadway romantic thriller upon which the movie was based.

Style is here of the essence - not merely style in the concept and the writing but, equally, style in the staging.

The library setting designed by David Potts is an exquisite pastiche of the thriller setting; Agatha Christie has never, in my experience, had it looking so good. The costumes by Jennifer von Mayrhauser are impeccably in character and period. Most important of all, Bishop's own direction is cut-throat razor-sharp.

The jokes are all timed as carefully as a clockmaker's eggs, and the performances - there is not a dud in the entire cast - securely poised on the brink of under-exaggeration.

Among so many clever cameos, it is almost unjust to play favorites, but it would be a hard critic who could resist Lily Knight as German triplets, Kelly Connell as an aspiring comic, Nicholas Wyman as a Nazi with Irish overtones and, perhaps best of all, Bobo Lewis as the dottiest Broadway lyricist ever to drink her way through Philadelphia.

Here is a most agreeable evening of no redeeming social value, but with an engaging and adroit silliness that brings a smile to the mind.

New York Post

New York Times: "'Musical Comedy Murders' at Circle Rep"

"The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940" opened originally at the Off-Broadway Circle Repertory Theatre January 7, 1987, and transferred to the Longacre April 6, 1987.

As a backstage comedy-thriller with Hollywood overtones, ''The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940'' is a decided change of pace for the Circle Repertory Company, where the show opened last night. The new John Bishop play is a kind of crossbreeding of Charles Ludlam (''The Mystery of Irma Vep'') and Terrence McNally (''It's Only a Play''), seasoned with a soupcon of ''Noises Off.'' But in contrast to those comedies, it lacks both satiric specificity and biting wit. The show is also littered with excessively red herrings, but, bearing with the contrivances, it does provoke laughter, especially in the second act - and it offers elbow room for actors' antics.

The creative team that was responsible for an ill-fated Broadway show in which three chorus girls were murdered by the Stage Door Slasher is brought together for a backers' audition of a new musical. The scene is the potential angel's suburban estate, a House of Usher in Chappaqua, complete with sliding-panel bookcases and cobwebbed secret passageways. The time, as in the title, is 1940, which means the game is afoot with Nazi saboteurs as well as domestic maniacs - and jokes about the Hollywood of the period.

While the snow falls outside, the characters are caught in a blizzard of indoor mayhem. Bodies drop in plain sight and fingers point in all directions. Actually, many of the clues are too obvious, as is the case with a suspicious actor, whose belabored brogue (''mither'' and ''fither'' mixed with a Germanic ''v'') is a dead giveaway. He is far more than meets the Irish.

The humor is inconsistent and the plot is top-heavy with trivia, including a film director with a penchant for listing the stars of his as-yet-unreleased movies. One would have expected a more artful raid on the Hollywood rogues gallery. Though William Powell is often mentioned, the author does not convince us that he has ever seen a ''Thin Man.''

Along with other principals, the film director is a dull, single-note character, although Ruby Holbrook brings a scatterbrained air to her role as the hostess (who has the often repeated, tongue-tripping name, Elsa von Grossenknueten). Occasionally, the dialogue is overcome by coyness, as in one character's habit of labeling things ''divoon.'' There is nothing divoon about her, and her demise comes none too soon.

As in the movies, supporting players steal the spotlight, especially true with Kelly Connell and Dorothy Cantwell as a stand-up comic and a would-be ingenue. Mr. Connell, seen earlier this season in the play ''Neon Psalms'' as a boilerman whose route takes him to the Mojave Desert, continues his eccentric-character route as a basic coward who keeps reaching for a punch line. Bad jokes and all, he is a constant enlivener, and Miss Cantwell adds her own piquancy. Together, they are an endearing couple, instilling the play with a farcical brio.

In addition, Lily Knight is amusing as three (or was it four?) variations on the same German maid - she is both victim and vixen - and Bobo Lewis does a droll comic turn as a self-involved Broadway composer. Miss Lewis has only two interests in life, writing songs and drinking, and is oblivious to the crimes unless they furnish her with rhymes. In one of Mr. Bishop's defter moments, after two hours of knockabout comedy and jack-in-the-box homicide, she calmly announces, ''I can't work in this environment.''

As directed by the author, the play dawdles in the first act, gathering stage business, but gradually begins to approach a comic payoff. David Potts's mechanized, book-lined set is a creaking asset (unexplained is the fact that there are so many matching volumes on the shelves). There are a few clever grisly touches: A man is stabbed through a bookcase - and through a copy of ''Moby-Dick.'' Mr. Connell greets that latter fact with amazement; as he says, he could not even read the whole book. As an impromptu team of sleuths who make a mockery of the fumbling house gumshoe, Mr. Connell and Miss Cantwell might be reason enough to justify a visit to ''The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940.''

New York Times

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