'Something's Afoot' shows perils of mixing music, mystery

September 15, 1995|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

Murder mysteries and musicals can be a tough combo. That's because songs and choreography have a way of crowding out intricate plotting. Add an ever-tricky touch of satire and the combination can turn a murder mystery-musical into its own corpse.

But "Something's Afoot" -- a small-scale musical with a book, music and lyrics by James MacDonald, David Voss and Robert Gerlach -- is sufficiently well- crafted not only to overcome these potential difficulties, but also to keep you smiling despite the highly uneven production it is receiving at Arena Players.

The plot blends just about every whodunit cliche. A small group of people, most of them strangers, gathers at the opulent estate of a British aristocrat, with the eponymous name of Lord %J Rancour. An electrical storm breaks out. The estate, on an

isolated island, is cut off from the mainland. Suddenly, Lord Rancour is found murdered. Before you can say "Agatha Christie," the guests start dropping off faster than Angela

Lansbury's friends and relatives on "Murder, She Wrote."

The methods by which these subsequent murders take place are part of the production's problems. The show calls for minor special effects, which, on opening night, taxed the limits of Arena Players' otherwise pleasing manor-house set. One guest supposedly dies of strangulation when her scarf catches on a decorative sword, but the scarf managed to float free instead. Another is fatally beaned by a round-headed mace that has all the impact of a bouncing Nerf ball.

Yet, the show's so corny, you tend to grin, rather than grimace, at these gaffes. In fact, the production probably would have worked better if director Robert E. Russell had gone full-out into overblown, comic-strip camp -- although this requires considerable finesse to pull off. (As it is now, keyboard player Hugh Carey's direction of the small backstage ensemble is one of the rare examples of finesse.)

Adding to the redeeming grins is Laura Sligh's performance in the pivotal role of Miss Tweed, the show's makeshift detective. Though it would have been nice to see her dressed in something tweedier than elegant evening wear, in every other respect -- especially vocally -- she is the rudder that steers this often tottering ship to shore.

As is customary at Arena Players, many of the other roles are double-cast. As titled but penniless Lady Grace Manley-Prowe, Tracy Nicole Hall has a powerful singing voice that also helps the production rise above its shortcomings, particularly in her impressive rendition of "The Man with the Ginger Moustache," a torchy send-up of ballads of lost love. And, as the show's young lovers, the hearts of Desadra Ford and Sekou Laidlow are appealingly in tune, even when their voices are not.

A silly little musical mystery spoof such as "Something's Afoot" may have seemed a light and easy way to breeze into Arena Players' season. But like solving mysteries, comedy can be deceptively difficult, and making it look easy is an even more difficult feat. The opening night performance didn't make it look easy, but perhaps "Something's Afoot" will find surer footing as the run continues.

"Something's Afoot"

Where: Arena Players, 801 McCulloh St.

When: 8:30 p.m. Friday, 7:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, matinees at 3 p.m. Sundays; through Oct. 1

Tickets: $18

Call: (410) 728-6500

... * 1/2

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