By Rachele Stoops
The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940, Lincoln Community Playhouse, Friday, May 5, 2023
It was a lovely spring evening when my husband and I joined the audience for the opening night performance of The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 at the Lincoln Community Playhouse, but on stage, snow (and death) was piling up.
The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940, written by John Bishop and directed here by the always dapper Morrie Enders, opens in the library of the labyrinthian New York mansion owned by German refugee Elsa Von Grossenknueten (played by LCP newcomer Regina Hinkley). The audience remains in that library for the evening, while the collection of colorful characters on stage uses it as headquarters for an audition that presumably drew them to the mansion in the first place.
I loved that the stage stays set in that library; there are no scene changes, which helps the play clip along at a brisk pace. There are so many surprises on stage that it could be confusing if the set changed.
The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 is, of course, set in 1940: the Great War has left Germany broke and broken, and in the US, everyone is paying close attention to the second European war (the US doesn’t officially enter until 1941). Hollywood is beginning to outshine Broadway, and performers of all types are, as always, looking for a big break.
The play begins with a fun bit of physical comedy that sets the tone for the rest of the show. The audience sees the danger before the characters do, aided by the appropriately ominous music and lighting.
The mansion’s owner, Elsa, and her maid, Helsa (Francoise Traxler), open their home for a bit of subterfuge on the snowy night. Sergeant Michael Kelly (Mark Geist, seen recently in the astonishingly well-directed Murder on the Orient Express in Beatrice) is there to collaborate with Elsa as they set a trap for a killer. The unknowing participants are would-be actors Patrick O’Reilly (Katie Hoppe), Nikki Crandall (Dani Gibson), and Eddie McCuen (Jack Tyson), plus the production team of Marjorie Baverstock (Joanann Blomstedt), Ken de la Maize (Brad Hoffman), Roger Hopewell (Michael Booton), and Bernice Roth (Karen Freimund Wills). Before they make it through the first act of the team’s new musical, the slasher strikes!
This show, written as a spoof of 1940s murder mystery movies, doesn’t miss a trick. There’s an almost Scooby Doo vibe as character after character reveals their true identity and purpose. The attention to detail is a hallmark of Enders’ directing, and it’s visible in every gag. As the Broadway group tries to highlight the musical numbers (which were scored by Zeph Sibler and choreographed by Wills, and are adorable), they’re interrupted by disappearances and threats of espionage and knife-wielding homicidal maniacs.
The whole thing makes for a fun and funny experience for the audience, with plenty of one-liners that work perfectly in both 1940 and 2023. Almost all of the characters were played up to stereotype, which is exactly what’s called for in this kind of farce. Tyson as Eddie the struggling comedian has some great lines that are corny without being dumb, and the timing between he and Gibson as Nikki (one of the few characters written without much hyperbole) really works.
Geist as Sergeant Kelly gave a strong performance as a well-meaning cop who ended up with more than he’d bargained for. Hoffman plays director Ken with a stereotypically inflated sense of his own importance, and his character arc is a satisfying piece of the puzzle.
I was impressed with the accents in this show (I’m not good at accents, so when other people are I notice); Hinkley and Traxler as the Germans Elsa and Helsa were consistent and believable through both acts. Katie Hoppe had their hands full with their character, and really shone.
Wills, as lyricist and bracelet fanatic Bernice, was a hoot to watch as she became progressively unstable. Bernice’s dependence on writing partner Roger was something sweet in the middle of all the murder.
Speaking of Roger, Michael Booton’s portrayal of the musician really stole the show for me. His delivery and mannerisms were delightfully over-the-top, and he had some of the best one-liners.
All in all, The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 is an incredibly fun show to watch. And there’s a little music and a little dancing, if you like that sort of thing! Personally, I love a good straight (non-musical) play, especially one that is fast-moving and funny. This one is all of the above. Go see it!!
If you go: The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 runs May 5-7, 12-14, 2023. Fri-Sat 7:30PM and Sun 2PM. Tickets are $25 for adults and $15 for students and can be purchased at https://www.lincolnplayhouse.com.
Dr. Rachele Stoops is a high school teacher, jewelry-maker, cookie-baker, and drama geek. She is both a dog mom and person mom, and if you have a problem, she will probably try to solve it. Rachele most recently directed Murder on the Orient Express for Community Players in Beatrice. Rachele likes to be busy, and she’s lucky to have found a wonderful husband who encourages her, cooks for her, and occasionally cleans up after her. When Rachele grows up she wants to be Secretary of Education or an actress.
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