June 8 2011 12:00 AM

A cast of crazed kooks energizes Riverwalk’s loony ’Musical Comedy Murders of 1940’


It is a mystery why people actually like the ancient genre
of theater called murder mysteries, but “The Musical Comedy Murders of
1940,” now playing at Riverwalk Theatre, a parody of the  style, is a genuinely hilarious hoot.

The ensemble of nutcase characters in this exaggerated
hyper-drama represents loonies of the highest magnitude, and the actors
portraying them are both bouncing-off-the-walls caffeinated and as
competitive in scene-stealing as all get out.

Every line is milked for maximum laughs, and the dizzying
pace of the action on stage becomes funnier and funnier as the plot — or
what there is of a plot — unfolds.

Whodunit? Who cares?  This
is a “Ten Little Indians” meets “Noises Off” kind of play with
blackouts that end with the lights coming up to reveal the latest dead
character, and with darkened subterranean passages substituting for
multiple doors. 

Riverwalk veteran Joe Dickson, as down-on-his luck
stand-up comedian Eddie McCuen, ultimately wins the contest for most
intensely agitated actor on stage, but Bob Murrell and Sarah Sonnenberg,
as musical writers Roger Hopewell and BernIce Roth, run a close second
and third. Sonnenberg’s character gets drunk and then drunker and has a
stage wobble that has to be seen to be believed. 

Michael Hayes plays Ken De La Maize, a caricature of the
stereotypical Hollywood director of the 1940s. His character prances
across the stage, a whirling windbag of wonderment, full of himself and
oblivious to his oafishness.

As Helsa Wenzel, the oddball Teutonic maid storm trooper,
Erica Lynn Beck walks on and off the stage with true Germanic abandon,
before revealing herself to be none other than … the plot thickens.

It takes a good while for this cast of crazies to entirely
find their groove, but by the end of Act One and throughout most of Act
Two, they find precise comic timing, generating ridiculously
overlapping pratfalls and stage combat that is mistaken for arduous

These antics prompt audience applause and a rollicking
laughter that bubbles up and prompts one to shake one’s head. No shtick
is left behind in this play — it is farce in the extreme, and done very

Who is the dreaded “Stage Door Slasher”?  Where did these Nazis come from?  Why does Susan Chmurynsky, as pompous producer Marjorie Baverstock, pronounce “divine” as “devune”?  All these questions and more are answered by the play’s end.

’Musical Comedy Murders of 1940’
Riverwalk Theatre
228 Museum Drive, Lansing
Through June 12
7 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and 2 p.m. Sundays
$14 adults; $12 for seniors, students and military.
Bargain Thursdays $10, $8 seniors, students and military
(517) 482-5700