The Huntsville Community Chorus Association is showing the comedy mystery musical, Whodunit, through next weekend at the John Paul II High School, as a dinner-theatre event. This is a fun script with a passable score, and the HCCA participants are clearly having a lot of fun.
Whodunit is loosely based on the 1908 mystery novel The Circular Staircase, by Mary Roberts Rinehart, often called “the American Agatha Christie”. Over the course of her 48-year publishing career, Rinehart is credited with inspiring the phrase, “the butler did it”, and was one of the earliest practitioners of the “had-I-but-known” technique for building suspense in a novel (e.g. “had I but known what would happen, I never would have set foot on that island…”). This particular story is about an elderly woman arriving at a rented mansion for a month of vacation in the country, where she is joined by her maid and her niece. We quickly find out that the house is haunted, and strange doings ensue, with a dead body or two, and, of course, the whole mystery of “whodunit”. I will not say whether “the butler did it” in this case, as you’ll have to see for yourself. This script is light-hearted, witty, and fun, with a score that’s a bit simplistic and repetitive. Overall, it plays more toward the comedy aspects, though it’s written with some dramatic suspense, as well.
This HCCA production is an adequate evening at the theatre, providing a few good chuckles, without being exceptional. The direction, by Craig Reinhart, takes the tack of playing for the jokes, with all the actors “performing”, rather than just being very real, which actually has the effect of lessening the comedic impact. With the exception of a few moments (like when “Jarvis” sings the song, “Money”), and a couple characters (“Liddy” and “Zara”), every other moment and character should be played very straight and serious, as if the characters actually ARE surrounded by mysterious murders. It’s an axiom of theatre that comedy is HARD, and this is an example–actors need to play it straight, to give the audience the most laughs. Otherwise, Reinhart’s direction is adequate. The blocking is a bit stiff and awkward at times, and there are some missed opportunities for creating extra laughs when bodies are being moved, but it is generally staged well, with clear visibility to the action and characters.
There are some nice performances among the actors, even with the less-than-optimum overall style choice. Amy Landreneau, as the elderly renter with a razor-sharp mind, “Carrie”, does a nice job of holding the show together, and being the touchstone for the rest of the cast. She carries her songs well, and is probably the most “real” character out there. Jeff Lapidus, as the butler, “Thomas”, tends to ham it up, and doesn’t quite pull off the “proper English butler” routine. His singing is fine, until he has to pick up the pace and dance a bit, when his voice loses all support and becomes barely audible, even with the microphones. All that said, Lapidus, does grab the audience’s attention, and he has a strong presence on the stage. Olivia Massey, as the young ingenue, “Sally” is quite comfortable on the stage, with one of the better voices in the cast. If she can stop glancing out over the audience every five seconds, she will be a performer to watch out for some day. Katie Campbell, as the maidservant, “Liddy”, has the joy of playing probably the most fun character in the script–the wisecracking, irreverent servant–and she does have a lot of fun with it. The unfortunate thing is that for the “wise-cracking servant” archetype to work , it has to be surrounded by seriousness and stuffiness, and we don’t have that in this production–Liddy is just part of the crowd. Thor Smith, as “Jack”, has a decent singing voice, but comes into his own during his second appearance, when he’s allowed to let loose a little. When his song speeds up, he doesn’t quite have the diction control to remain intelligible, but he really does a nice job creating a memorable, entertaining character, regardless. Mike Anders, as the detective, “Jarvis”, does well with the gruff, no-nonsense character, but that’s all we see–gruff and no-nonsense–when the character should have some other levels, like showing his burgeoning feelings toward “Carrie”. The added chorus of characters for the top of the show don’t really contribute much to the production, but do provide a little entertainment during a “half-time show” at intermission.
Bess Desta’s music direction and conducting are fine. There really isn’t much about this score that is impressive, but she did a nice job in getting the most out of her performers, and the band is well-balanced. Some of the chorus could have used a little more time learning the words, but the featured songs are all vocally about as entertaining as they could be. The choreography, by Sonia Guettler, is adequate.
The technical elements were acceptable, without being impressive. Kevin Wade’s set (making him the Scene Designer and/or Master Carpenter, rather than the Technical Director), serves the purpose of delineating entrances and exits, and has a structurally sound second level. The scenery painting is a bit cartoonish (which, at least, matches the overall style for this production), and the front door is entirely inappropriate for a mansion, but we do get the idea of what the setting is supposed to be. Cheryl Steely’s costumes have the right cut for the fashions of the 1930s, but there was obviously some cost-saving on the materials (an understandable choice for a community theatre). There doesn’t appear to be any logic behind the decision to reverse when a certain character wears a wig, and when they don’t, as compared to what is described in the script, and the result is just…odd. Some black pants for the butler that actually match the black of his coat, and tightening up Zara’s skirt so she doesn’t have to hold it up the whole time she’s onstage, would both be nice adjustments. All that said, the costumes do help the audience keep track of characters’ social status and relationships, and well reflect the period of the show. The un-credited lighting designer does a nice job of keeping the acting space illuminated, and flickering the lights on demand. Rick Lighthall’s sound effects are choppy, with audible cut-outs at the end of every effect, but they do serve their purpose of signalling what is happening in and around the acting space, without necessarily contributing to the “reality” of the moment. It is unfortunate the cast needs microphones, since the space is small enough that one would think a Choral group could fill it, but at least the sound is well mixed on the board.
Shows run this weekend and next. Show up early for a nice dinner with friendly, helpful wait-staff, or pay half-price for just the show itself. Overall, it’s an evening of light fare, and good fun. Ticket information and show times can be found here.
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