Musical murder mystery set to mystify audiences
Story by Ashlee Larrison
Photos by Ralph Freso
GCU News Bureau
And a murder most foul.
You name it and Ethington Theatre’s production of “The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940” has it.
John Bishop’s 1987 dark comedy transports audiences to 1940s New York and follows a team of performers as they attend a backer audition for a musical at theatre financier/investor Elsa Von Grossenknueten’s mansion. However, memories of the team’s last show, in which three chorus girls were murdered by the mysterious “Stage Door Slasher,” linger as a series of oddities begin to plague the auditions.
The play is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday the next two weekends, Sept. 10-12 and 17-19.
It’s a performance that director Michael Kary says is best compared to a game of Clue.
“This performance is kind of an homage to those 1940s radio mysteries,” he said. “The thing to take away is that we wanted to have the most fun to welcome people back into the theatre.”
After a full season of outdoor productions, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Bishop’s comedy should kick off the return to Grand Canyon University’s Ethington Theatre.
The long anticipated murder mystery, originally scheduled to be a part of the 2020-2021 theatre season, was the kind of performance that couldn’t be adapted for an outdoor stage and required an indoor release.
The simple luxury of being able to turn off the lights during certain scenes.
“There was just this one simple, really easy rudimentary thing that kept us from telling the story effectively,” Kary said. “I think we were able to find stories that could survive outside in that environment very well, but building a giant mansion on an outdoor stage isn’t something we could do last year. But we can do it inside.”
And that is exactly what they did.
The mansion set provides a colorful and interactive environment for the performers to explore. Even the simple turn of a desk clock activates surprises for the characters and audience alike.
Stage manager Hannah Hensley, who mainly has worked on musicals, knew that working on a murder mystery was a shot she had to take.
“I knew it would push me further than I had ever been pushed in a show,” she said. “With how complicated and complex the set is and all the sounds, all the lights and stuff, it definitely intrigued me because I knew it would grow me.”
But Hensley isn’t the only student who is growing through the experience. The performance itself has evolved since work began on it early last season.
“I’ve been a part of this show for over a year now,” Hensley said. “Seeing it finally come to life on stage is definitely something that is just incredible.”
In addition to an impressive set, the show’s audio plays a major role in transporting the audience to the appropriate time period.
Sound designer Daniella Brown says that in addition to old timey classic music, radio work also plays a major role in the production.
“We have some voices from our cast and from our director that have been modified and edited to sound like they came from a classic radio,” she said. “It’s been a lot of moving parts, which has been exciting, and we went 100% toward the biggest show that we could do.”
The performance also was an opportunity for members of the cast to play around with this what they could bring to their roles.
Nick Philips, who plays Ken De La Maize, says there was no shortage of talent that he’s gotten to work with on the show.
“My favorite experience, so far, has been really stretching myself as an actor and getting to work with this amazing cast,” he said. “We have some really hard-working people here, and it’s really fun to be on stage with all of them.
“This is going to be a really fun show for everyone.”
For Hallie Unruh, who will be playing the role of Rachel Hopewell (previously Rodger Hopewell), the fun of getting to work on the production stemmed from all the creative freedom performers have with their characters.
“With some directors you’re given blocking and told what to do, but he (Kary) just said, ‘All right, go where you feel like you should go.’” she said. “We were given a lot of creative liberty with jokes and bits and character voices.
“It’s terrifying but it’s also really cool to be able to build a character from body to movement to learning the lines.”
All told, it is a season debut that cast and crew say audiences are not going to want to miss.
“I think it truly shows how impressive this department is set-wise, sound-wise, acting-wise,” Hensley said. “It truly is something I’m incredibly proud of. I think it is so intriguing and interesting to watch because something changes every second.
“People should come see the show solely to be impressed and be in awe of what we can do here.”
IF YOU GO
What: “The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940” by John Bishop
When: 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays, Sept. 10-19
Where: Ethington Theatre, GCU campus
Tickets: $12 admission. Discounted tickets for senior citizens, military personnel, GCU and GCE employees, GCU alumni, children 12 years old and younger, and GCU students.
Information: 602-639-8979 or [email protected]
Contact Ashlee Larrison at (602) 639-8488 or [email protected].