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“The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940” with STAGEStheatre

Stages will strike the funny bone, classic film style

By Eric Marchese

Plays spoofing show-biz are fairly commonplace, but “The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940” pokes fun at multiple genres and performance media as diverse as movies and live theater.

John Bishop’s Off-Broadway (and later Broadway) comedy, though, is also a tribute to the movies and movie stars of the 1930s – in fact, it’s pretty much a full-blown homage.

It’s clear from the 1987 play that Bishop clearly adores the black-and-white screen comedies of the era, and the script’s style encompasses screwball comedy and slapstick, all housed in an equally wacky combination of murder mystery and film noir. The latter genre didn’t arise until the 1940s, so Bishop manages to bridge two distinct decades of movie lore.

“Musical Comedy Murders” has enjoyed considerable popularity over the years, and it’s easy to see why: Theater companies get a chance to produce a play with numerous colorful roles, while audiences get to see vintage elements of the silver screen both ridiculed and saluted.

STAGEStheatre is the latest Orange County theater company to produce the play, this time in a co-production with the Curtis Theatre in Brea. When the Fullerton-based troupe staged “Musical Comedy Murders” in 2001, Amanda DeMaio directed and Patti Cumby was in her cast. This time around, Cumby is director, while DeMaio is both producer and one of the cast members.

Cumby characterizes the play as “a wildly complex, entirely silly, exhaustingly non-stop ride from start to finish and requires performers with sharp comedic timing, physical stamina, and an ability to do it all while conveying a brain-twisting mystery who-done-it that leaves the audience feeling like they absolutely could have worked it all out, if only they had caught that one clue.”

Bishop’s storyline typifies the comic murder mysteries of its chosen period’s moviedom: The creative team responsible for a recent Broadway flop in which three chorus girls were murdered by the mysterious “Stage Door Slasher” have assembled for a backer’s audition of a new show at the Westchester estate of a wealthy angel who loves theater and is possibly interested in financing the new production.

Those assembled for the audition soon realize that the infamous Slasher has reappeared and is bent on picking up where he left off. As usually happens in such stories, the characters have no means of escape and are cut off from any possible retreat – in this case, they’re socked in by a blizzard.

Multiplying the mayhem is the fact that the house is replete with sliding panels and secret passageways. Bodies start to drop in plain sight, knives spring out of nowhere, masked figures drag their intended victims behind swiveling bookcases. As you might expect, the fingers of accusation point in all directions.

As Cumby notes, all of the play’s characters “figure diabolically in the comic mayhem which follows” the terrifying reappearance of the dreaded Stage Door Slasher. As far as casting the show, Cumby said the “one thing” she was seeking “was to find the funniest storytellers I could and match each of them with the most appropriate character possible.”

Cumby wound up casting 10 actors she said fit that definition – DeMaio, Christine Cummings, Barney Evans, Brian Fichtner, Darri Kristin, Sarah Meals, Terri Mowrey, Phil Nieto, Shelby Perlis and Brian Pirnat – and added that several have appeared in various STAGES productions during the 28 years the company had its venue on Commonwealth Ave. in downtown Fullerton.

“I have personally worked with a number of people in my cast and on my production team previously. Some of them, many times. It just so happens that, fortunately, I know a great number of terrific performers in Orange County. There are also those whom I have not yet, until this production, had the pleasure to work with. It’s an excellent blend.”

The production staffers come from both STAGES and the Curtis Theatre, with STAGES’ Jon Gaw and Curtis’ Heather Harless teaming up as technical directors and Lauren Shoemaker from STAGES working as stage manager.

The production is designed by STAGES personnel, with Gaw as scenic designer, MacKenzie Greiner as costume designer, Kalen Cobb as lighting designer and Thor Fay handling the sound design.

Everyone is working under the auspices of Curtis staffers Kris Kataoka and Elliot Forrester. Cumby said since STAGES began producing shows at the Curtis, the combined staff have had a productive and harmonious working relationship: “STAGES and the Curtis work very well together, and this partnership has been beneficial for both organizations.”

Cumby said that for this slot, STAGES was “specifically looking for a show that would be a fitting entrance to fall season.” The show, she noted, “was on a long list of shows that we had either done previously or had discussed producing in the past.”

Comedy murder-mysteries, Cumby said, “are among my favorites,” so the choice of this show “was pretty easy for me.” She sums up by saying that the play “has a number of moving parts, so a lot of the challenges are also things that make it appealing. Unfortunately, getting into specifics would ruin all the surprises, and I don’t really want to do that.”

Cumby sees her cast, production and design team personnel as combining to forge what will be a singular, and memorable, production: “I have an incredibly talented group of people working on this show, both on and off stage, and to me, that is what will make this production one of a kind.”

Eric Marchese has written about numerous subjects over more than 38 years as a freelance and staff journalist for a wide variety of publications, but is best known as a critic, feature writer and news reporter covering theater and the arts throughout Orange County and beyond.

‘The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940’

Curtis Theatre

1 Civic Center Circle, Brea

October 6-15, 2023

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