March 19 2014 12:00 AM

Farce channels the pratfalls of Sellers’ ‘Pink Panther’ persona

On its surface, Riverwalk Theatre’s production of “A Shot in the Dark” appears like a surefire hit. The comical murder mystery was adapted into the 1964 “Pink Panther” sequel of the same name, starring Peter Sellers as the hilariously incompetent and unintelligible Inspector Clouseau. (Harry Kurnitz’ English translation of the original play, “L’Idiote,” by Marcel Achard, was the source material for that script.) Why do we mention the movie? The show’s star, Evan Michael Pinsonnault, works tirelessly to recreate Sellers’ outrageous French accent and his paranoid karate chops. But artistic liberties with the script and uneven performances result in an inconsistent imitation.

The play serves as a satire on the hypocrisy of the rich and powerful. Set in Paris in the early ‘60s, “A Shot in the Dark” follows Magistrate Paul Sevigne (Pinsonnault) through the interrogation of the prime suspect in murder case: Josefa (Chanae Houska), a wealthy banker’s chamber maid is accused of shooting her lover, the estate’s chauffeur. Pinsonnault incorporates Sellers’ trademark physicality and phrases into the Sevigne character through extensive improvisation. It’s a risky gamble that the entire production relies upon.

But by emulating the film instead of creating original performances, director Dan Pappas and his cast trap themselves in a box of comparison. Sellers’ pratfalls were surprising and spontaneous on screen; on stage, they feel obvious and telegraphed. Chairs, pool cue racks, telephones with lengthy cables — as soon as they appear, audiences can be assured there will soon be in for a trip … or fall.

Constantly setting up sight gags also means the production drains the script of any relevance. The witty dialogue is filled with naughty one-liners and double entendres. Characters reveal overlapping affairs and hint at the sordid details through innuendo, but the frequency of Pinsonnault’s slapstick hijinks draws focus away from the story.

Pinsonnault’s stage dominance might matter more if the rest of the cast offered more in the way of their performances, which overall they do not. Exceptions include the reliable Steve Ledyard as Sevigne’s clerk Morestan who takes overly descriptive notes, Rebecca Lauren Mueller as Sevigne’s wife Antoinette and Rachel Mender as the melodramatic Madame Beaurevers.

At times, the play feels like Pappas asked his cast perform a carbon copy of the film on stage. The inclusion of Henry Mancini’s music and a take on the cartoon opening credits from the films are certainly welcome homages. But the attempt to remake rather than reference the “Pink Panther” films ultimately falls far short of its intentions.

“A Shot in the Dark”

Riverwalk Theatre 7 p.m. Thursday, March 20; 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, March. 21-22; 2 p.m. Sunday, March 23 $10 Thursday/ $14 Friday- Sunday/ students, seniors and military $2 discount 228 Museum Drive, Lansing (517) 482-5700,