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A CurtainUp Review
Murder Mystery Blues
By Elyse Sommer
Anyone who thinks that director John Doyle's actor-musician casting for his revivals of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd and Company is a gimmick, should be forced to see Murder Mystery Blues Mr. Doyle's use of this multi-tasking approach works because his casts are assembled with care and vision and artfully directed. The same can't be said for Janey Clarke's concept for turning Woody Allen's satirical stories published in The New Yorker thirty years ago into a sort-of jazz musical and having the performers act, sing, dance and play instruments. What Doyle does with much flair does indeed come off as a gimmick here — with the source material poorly served.
By all rights this adaptation of Allen's hard-boiled, satirical detective stories should be a hoot. After all Allen is a well known jazz lover so why not literally jazz up these comic tales starring a private eye who tips his fedora hat to Raymond Chandler and resembles an Allen-like film-noirish nebbish. And yet Ms. Clarke's blend of film noir fun plus jazz riffs has crash-landed on the stage of Theater A of the 59E59 complex like a lead filled balloon.
For starters short stories are notoriously difficult to tranfer from page to stage. These pieces which are minor blips in Allen's ouevre read better than they play and call for a more fully developed plot (which was the case with Allen's Manhattan Murdery Mystery movie). They're fun as fictional tidbits but simply don't hang together, at least not in this semi-musical concoction The jazz interludes would be suitable as incidental music but here seem more puffed up and the lyrics do little to bolster what never rises beyond being underdeveloped skits.
Still, Ms. Clarke's concept might work and in fact seems to have worked when Murder Mystery Blues premiered in London. But not with this cast. Unlike John Doyle's outstanding actors who happen to play instruments, these performers are musicians about whose acting the less said the better. I don't know anything about the cast at London's Warehouse Theater where this skits plus music evening premiered but I suspect that they were better able than the current quintet to get the flavor and accents of the Allen characters and to integrate them with the music.
Even some of the most amusing skits like The Whore of Mensa in which intellectual affairs are offered up brainy ladies fall flat. ("For 50 bucks, you can relate without getting close. For a hundred, a girl can lend you her Bartok records, have dinner, and then let you watch while she has an anxiety attack"). Weakest of all is Alex Haven as the hardbitten gumshoe. His Kaiser Lupowitz doesn't come close to blending Chandler with Allen. Haven, an okay saxophone player, seems so uncomfortable as an actor that it's at times embarassing to watch him. As delivered by Haven, the noirish lines land like lumpy latkes ("Ten minutes after the check came, we were in the sack and brother. . .she went through the kind of gymnastics that would have won first prize in the Tia Juana Olympics" ) and, at least at the performance I attended, failed to get a rise from the audience (quite a number of whom departed at the intermission).
The women are appropriately curvaceous and Andromeda Turre sings quite well. The music is okay but the acting overall is best passed over without further comment.
The most appealing aspect of this disappointing import is Maruti's Evan's Manhattan skyline set. It even accommodates a wall of old-fashioned file cabinets and at one point a roll-out hospital bed for an elongated anecdote about a man's reluctant visits to a dying friend. When the man finally dies, he rises from the bed and asks " So what's the point of this story?" A question which might well be applied to this entire enterprise.
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide