May 12 2010 12:00 AM

’Dead’ inspires yawns instead of chuckles

It was a nice touch: Starlight Theater founder Linda Granger getting on stage after the performance of ”Knock ‘em Dead” to acknowledge the behind-the scenes techies responsible for the Starlight productions this year.

Starlight occupies a unique niche in the local theater community. It is a dinner theater in a middle school cafeteria with an auditorium stage and caters somewhat to a more geriatric demographic than other theaters. In this setting, with this group, an old-fashioned, old-timey murder-mystery whodunit with second-act audience participation makes complete sense.

Directed by Terry Jones, “Knock ‘em Dead” uncovers an array of disparate desperate performers in the finals of a talent competition. The characters are compellingly quirky, the characterizations not quite so.

Jason Carlen, coming off his recent success in Lansing Community
College’s production of “A m e r i c a n Buffalo,” is most believable in the role of Lou Dumbello, assistant manager of the club in which the competition takes place, while James Houska as the flamingly dramatic drag queen Ian Wayne, with accompanying yip-yip dog, Cali, exudes more dramatic energy than the recent volcanic outpouring in Iceland.

Alas, characterizations start to peter out from there. Mara Schaberg, as the chanteuse blues singer Lotta Verboten, skimps on the necessary exaggeration and doesn’t do a whole lotta justice to the part, while Marni Darr Holmes as the so-called comic Roxy Barn, confuses deadpan with dead, evoking few, if any, laughs.

Sarah Fowler, as the pom-pom seductress Bamby Lynn, is just plain too cutesy for words and lacks much of the vampiness that might make her role more believable. Meanwhile, John Roche, as the Great Somnambulo, lives up to his name, putting the real audience to sleep with not much of a characterization at all. Yawn.

Act One ends with club owner Vinnie Bumpcuss (a cameo role for Todd Mackenzie) falling out of his office onto the stage 2 Size floor 8 Shorts with a knife 5/5 & in 12 his back, while director Jones, in the role of Detective Hal Brown, announces to the audience that we are “material witnesses” to a murder. Would that we were also witnesses to a whole bunch of good acting.

Act Two opens with the audience being invited to interrogate the remaining live actors to determine who actually killed the aforementioned Mr. Bumpcuss. This participative shtick is probably improvisation at its worst, as the play meanders here and there and everywhere before the audience is finally surveyed as to who we think did in Mr. Bumpcuss. At this point, a few audience members who haven’t even worn watches for a very long time are unconsciously looking at their wrists and swiveling around looking for a clock.

Early in the play, one of the characters observes — I paraphrase — “We are all trapped in a Twilight Zone talent show.”

Uh-huh. I knew that. Eventually, we all do discover who stabbed Bumpcuss— or do we?

One thing’s for sure, it wasn’t the butler.

’Knock ’em Dead’

Dinner Theatre 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 14 and Saturday, May 15 Waverly
East Intermeidate School, 3131 W. Michigan Ave., Lansing $15 for the
show; $30 for dinner ($25 for seniors) Dinner begins at 6:30 p.m.;
reservations required. (517) 243-6040 www.starlightdinnertheatre.

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