Richardson — A Pegasus Theatre black-and-white production during the summer? Pegasus devotees expect that a black-and-white production will happen in January, and yes, there will be another one in January 2017. But this year, the company’s 30th anniversary year, they are treating audiences with a summer black-and-white as well at the Charles W. Eisemann Center in Richardson. This production of It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Murder by Kurt Kleinmann has special significance.
Following the close of the Pegasus Theatre’s Main Street location in 2002, this was the play Kurt Kleinmann co-produced for off-Broadway along with Cole Ferry of Step Lively Productions. New York audiences loved the show. Upon their return to Dallas, theater founder/artistic director Kurt Kleinmann and his wife/executive director Barbara Weinberger eventually decided to narrow their focus to the Living Black and White productions. Over the years Pegasus Theatre has become the standard-bearer for quality black-and-white theatrical productions. The technique they developed for creating the visuals (make-up, costumes, lighting, costuming, set design, and stylized acting) has been trademarked as Living Black and White. To again stage It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Murder during this 30th anniversary reaffirms the wisdom of their decision years ago.
The Kleinmann scripts are inspired by 1930s-40s film noir. Storylines for the Living Black and White shows are not serial, but three characters recur. Kleinmann takes the period film murder mystery formula and originates scripts with character twists, crafting the central figure, Harry Hunsacker (portrayed by Kleinmann) as a bumbling but lovable detective that manages (with a lot of help) to stumble backwards into solving each case. That help comes from his loyal, able, paid-by-the-hour assistant Nigel Grouse (Ben Bryant). Hunsacker is a thorn in the side of Lt. Foster (Chad Cline) and their interactions form the basis for a lot of the humor in the scripts.
This production of It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Murder is significant for another reason. Kurt Kleinmann is retiring from his role as Harry Hunsacker and passing the baton to understudy Scott Nixon. Kleinmann performed during the first week of this run, and he will return during the last week (August 4-7) to close it out. However, weeks two and three (July 21-31) will introduce Scott Nixon as Harry Hunsacker for this production and into the future. This transition is a marker in time for the theater.
It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Murder is aesthetically beautiful, reflective of director Michael Serrecchia’s artistry and understanding of the film noir period style. The show opens via a black-and-white filmed segment complete with title credits and soundtrack. The scene is with Smitty, the department store Santa (Allen Matthews) sitting backstage, taking a break. Cloaked by angular shadows, a stranger enters and murders Smitty. Cut to black, the screen rises out of view, and the stage lights come up on Christmas Eve in Grayson & Wayne’s department store.
The store is managed by Nelson Quincy (Michael A. Robinson). He supervises a staff that includes store detective Frank Kelly (Billy Betsill), Gayle Reed (Beth Lipton) who is somewhat engaged to Patrick Blaine (Blake Hametner), gift wrapping expert Elwood Johnson (Alexander C. Ferguson), and elevator operators Timmy and Jimmy (Bryan Douglas). Eve Grayson (Leslie Patrick) is the widow of the store’s founder. Nicholas Meriweather is portrayed by Ben Schroth and Abby Davis (Sheila Rose) is the reporter hoping for a scoop on the murder. Chad Cline returns as Lt. Foster, as does Ben Bryant as Hunsacker’s paid-by-the-hour-assistant and right-hand man, Nigel Grouse.
The Santa murder has resulted in a downturn in customer shopping at Grayson & Wayne’s. Hunsacker, having procrastinated, enters the store accompanied by Nigel to finish his Christmas shopping. Lots of secrets abound with various employees scurrying about. And there are those curious elevator rides with Timmy and Jimmy whose waving arms are the only parts of them that are seen. Whom among them killed Santa? The audience is actually invited to vote during intermission for the character they think is responsible.
This is one of the strongest of the 16 Living Black and White productions primarily because the script is tighter. The effectiveness of the opening filmed segment deserves a second mention. So yes, there will be other opportunities to see one of the Pegasus black-and-whites, but this will be the last chance to see its creator in the starring role, and to perhaps go back to see Nixon in the role as well. That in itself is enough reason to make sure you do not miss. It is fun enough to experience twice.
UPDATE July 27: Janice L. Franklin also saw a performance with Scott Nixon. Below is her thoughts on his performance.
There is nothing unusual about another actor stepping into a role initially portrayed by someone else. What is happening in Pegasus Theatre’s production of It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Murder is more than a change in actors during a production. It is an actor assuming responsibility for a character that has been portrayed by its creator for decades. Such a change is accompanied by a higher level of anticipation and scrutiny because it is a permanent change, an assumption of responsibility for a character that has become beloved by loyal audiences. This week Scott Nixon succeeded Kurt Kleinmann as the caretaker of the Harry Hunsacker character.
Long time patrons know every lift of the eyebrow, every downturn of the pouted lips, and the rocking back-and-forth movements of Kleinmann’s Hunsacker. Visually, there was not a noticeable difference between Nixon and Kleinmann because in the costume and makeup, there is a resemblance. However, Nixon does not try to mimic Kleinmann in the role. He brings his own gestures and mannerisms to the character, making a second viewing of the play as a fresh experience possible.
Nixon presents a Hunsacker that is less bumbling and more wandering, present in a funny, disconnected sort of way. He has a crisper delivery and a less halting cadence. This changes the rhythm and pacing of the dialogues in scenes, and results in opening up different areas of the script’s humor. Interestingly and perhaps in response to Nixon’s stylizations, other characters adjusted their stylizations as well, not just in scenes with Nixon. Most notable were the adjustments by Ben Bryant (Nigel Grouse), who interacts with Nixon more than any of the other characters. Bryant made different and broader choices, and those actually brought more color to Nigel.
Overall, Scott Nixon is effective as Harry Hunsacker. The cast gelled and the story remained intact which is from a technical perspective, ultimately what matters the most. From an audience point of view, Nixon’s Hunsacker remains the lovable guy that makes us want to see what adventures he will have next.
In the final weekend, Kurt Kleinmann returns to the role.