The title The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 is slightly misleading. To begin with, the show is not really a musical; there are two songs. Secondly, while there is a fair amount of murder, there is not a whole lot of comedy. Nonetheless, the current production at Pocket Sandwich Theatre makes the most of this uninspired play.
Originally produced in New York in the late 1980s, the play by John Bishop is a hokey, murder-mystery comedy set in 1940 in upstate New York. The entire play takes place in the home of the wealthy Elsa Von Grossenknueten (Kim Winnubst) where she has gathered some theater artists to hold auditions for a new musical. There is the director, Ken De La Maize (Travis Cook), the Irish tenor, Patrick O'Reilly (Walt Threlkeld), the struggling comedian, Eddie McCuen (Joe Cucinotti), and the chorus girl, Nikki Crandall (Lindsey Schmeltzer). They are joined by the hoity-toity Broadway producer Marjorie Baverstock (Lauren Hearn), the flamboyant composer Roger Hopewell (Michael B. Moore), and the never-sober lyricist Bernice Roth (Sylvia Luedtke). Among all these zany guests is an undercover cop, Michael Kelly (Kenneth Fulenwider). He is searching for the infamous Stage Door Slasher.
What does the murderer have to do with these theater folk?
In the opening scene, we see a mysterious, masked person murder Elsa's maid, Helsa Wensel (Staci Cook). To our surprise, though, we see Helsa in the next scene. Is it really her? Elsa suspects that something is different about her maid but seems unconcerned. By the end of the first act, though, things begin to get dangerous for her guests. Spoiler alert: one of them is murdered! Suddenly, everyone staying in the mansion is a suspect. Who is the elusive Stage Door Slasher? There are so many twists and turns in the second act that it is almost difficult to keep up. One character in particular actually confesses to having two layers of secret identities.
Carol M. Rice, who directs the show, can't seem to get enough of these corny, murder-mystery comedies. She wrote last year's equally hokey Murder on the Orient Burlesque at her own Rover Dramawerks. For a murder mystery, Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 is interesting enough, but for a comedy it leaves something to be desired. Many of the jokes just fall flat despite the best efforts of the performers. Besides the strained humor, the opening scenes move abruptly and feel so disconnected that it is difficult to follow.
Still, many of the actors give fine performances. Several of them have the challenge of playing characters disguised or impersonating other characters. Ms. Cook is a cold and deadly serious Helsa. She is stoic and stern throughout with her intimidating German accent. The best comic actor in the show is Joe Cucinotti as the D-list comedian, Eddie. Cucinotti resembles the comic actor Kevin James in appearance and in his bumbling mannerisms and loud outbursts. By far, he brings the most life to the show's stale jokes and provides some solid physical humor. As the director, Ken De La Maize, Travis Cook sounds and moves like a character from an actual 1940s-era film. And Michael B. Moore provides plenty of laughs as Roger, the composer.
The show is meant to be a spoof on the murder-mystery genre, but sometimes really corny jokes just aren’t enough to carry a show.