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Sometimes, a director needs to be flexible. Especially in a community theater.
Michael Abendshein, who is staging Rockville Little Theatre’s next production, “The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940,” originally proposed very a different kind of play to the venue.
It was “The Diary of Anne Frank,” the tragic story of a girl who hides from the Nazis with her family and other Jews in Holland but is eventually captured. The theater did present “Anne Frank,” but with Pauline Griller-Mitchell — whose father had lost family members in the Holocaust — directing.
Instead, Rockville Little Theatre approached Abendshein with the request to stage the much-lighter fare, even if the show does have “murders” in the title.
“The bulk of the work is done by our literary committee reading and reviewing plays suggested for the approved list,” said Dean Fiala, current board president. “The board takes all the submitted plays and crafts the season.
We attempt to create a mix of genres. As you can see from this year, we opened with a drama, The Diary of Anne Frank,” and finish with the suspenseful ‘Sherlock’s Veiled Secret’.’ ‘The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940’ was our strongest comedy option to round out the season.”
Abendshein agreed, saying the show’s strengths surrounds its use of mysteries with humor.
“It appealed to me, because I’ve always loved mysteries, and this one is wrapped up in a comedy,” he said.
In what seems like a straightforward plot, the creative team responsible for a recent Broadway flop gets together on a suburban estate to audition before a financial backer for a new musical.
But things quickly turn deadly, and attention shifts from impressing backers to uncovering the murderer(s).
“The play is ingenious and comic, and spoofs the great murder mystery movies of the 1940s,” Abendshein said.
“There are great one-liners and very funny bits. Everything gets wrapped up in the end, but in the meantime, audiences will keep wondering whodunit.”
Written by John Bishop, “The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940” premiered at the Circle Repertory Theatre in New York City and moved to Broadway in 1987, with limited success. However, this version of “Musical Comedy Murders,” which marks Abendshein’s directorial debut at Rockville Little Theatre, is a “hit “with cast and crew,” who wonder why it wasn’t more of one in the Big Apple, he said.
Margo Weill, one of those cast members, plays a servant on the estate, a German refugee named Helsa.
Weill made an interesting transition to “Musical Comedy Murders” from her last role. In Silver Spring Stage’s recent production of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” she was one of the girls claiming to be bewitched in Puritan New England, driven by a young woman rejected by her married lover and leading to disastrous consequences for the town.
After “The Crucible,” “Musical Comedy Murders” was like a “palate cleanser,” Weill said while laughing. The role has “pushed” Weill goes in many directions, from having to “pick up” a German accent to the diversity of her role, which is “almost slapstick” but also includes “pretty intense stage combat.”
“It struck me as a really Neil Simonesque comic spoof, like his farcical play, ‘Rumors,’” Weill said. “I read the script at the library, and was laughing to myself. I rarely ever do that.”
Weill explained part of the charm of “Musical Comedy Murders” is not just figuring out who committed the murders but sorting out who’s who as some of the characters are something other than what they seem.
“(It) really strong jokes that resonate with an audience,” she added. “And the auditioning actors [within the show] get to perform bit of a Broadway show for a producer and angel.”
“The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940” plays Feb. 1-10 at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre on 603 Edmonston Drive, Rockville. For tickets, call 240-314-8690. www.rlt-online.org.