Miss Scarlett in the Ballroom with the Candlestick
When the movie “Clue,” starring Tim Curry, hit the big screen in 1985, it sparked a worldwide craze and renewal of interest in the old-fashioned “Who Done It.” Immediately following its success the arts were flooded with a barrage of novels, plays, screenplays, and even in-home, do-it-yourself murder mystery dinner party game sets. The obsession with solving the mystery sharpened our senses, heightened our awareness, and provided a fun and entertaining experience all at the same time.
I will admit that I have seen my fair share of murder mysteries over the years, and I would be remiss in saying that I didn’t have some preconceived notions of what to expect, or rather what not to expect, when I attended The Mystery Café’s production of A Man in Pajamas at St. Croix Off Broadway Dinner Theatre on its opening night. In addition, having previously seen several productions at this very theatre and knowing that this particular show was a departure from the norm in terms of the overall architecture of the performance and dinner service, I had more than a few reservations.
Nevertheless, it is my job as a reviewer to set aside those preconceived notions and come to watch the show with an open mind. Although, more often than not, all of my years in the theatre repeatedly prove that my gut feeling is always right. Lee H. Adams, founder of The Mystery Café’ and writer, director, and star of A Man in Pajamas, has clearly solved the mystery of just what components go into making the perfect murder mystery.
Obviously, the ultimate goal of any mystery is to solve the case. Depending on the personality there are some folks out there who are simply put-off by this. Their goal is to be entertained and to not have to think about or figure anything out. Audience members need not worry about that with this show. Rest assured it is not a test. It is a show . . . and a very good one at that. Lee Adams bellows as Private Eye Chase Taylor, “How the hell am I supposed to find anything out with you guys coming and going like reality shows around here?” Any pressure felt to actually solve the mystery is immediately dissolved just minutes into the performance.
That said, the experience is significantly more enjoyable when you do play along and try to solve the crime. The playbill even offers every audience member bribe money to present to the characters by asking questions to help acquire additional clues and information and a Super Sleuth ballot to attempt to solve the crime at the end. Keeping my review notes separate from my mystery notes and clues was admittedly a challenge, but well worth the flipping back and forth. Best of all, the collective “brain-trust” at our table did solve the crime and got a fun little prize at the end of the night (though you’ll have to go yourself to see just what that is!).
Unlike the more traditional dinner theatre style where you are served your meal, watch the first act, have dessert at intermission, and then watch the conclusion of the play, A Man in Pajamas is performed in four scenes ranging from 15 to 25 minutes in length with three breaks in between. The audience arrives during the first half hour and has drinks and appetizers as usual with the first scene immediately following. During the first break the salad course is served, followed by scene two, and then the main course during the second break. The third scene follows and during the final break dessert is served, which leads directly into the conclusion of the play. Leading into each break Detective Taylor announces he will use his sleuthing abilities to “find us” our next course.
I had some concern about this initially for multiple reasons. First, like many of us, I enjoy eating my meal first and then sitting back and enjoying the show. More importantly, I worried that dividing the play up into four parts may cause the play to feel disconnected and difficult to follow. However, the script is written brilliantly and the scenes are highly entertaining, hilarious, and fly by in no time at all. And, with every break, more delicious food is placed on the table, and that is a win-win in my book. On the flip side audiences need not be concerned with having enough time during these breaks to finish any given course. Stage manager Greg Lund and the rest of the wait staff carefully monitor the house to ensure everyone has had enough time to finish up before moving on to the next scene. The entire production is a well-oiled machine.
What keeps the show connected even during these three breaks is that the actors do not get a break. Between each scene the actors stay in character and interact with each other and mingle with the audience in an effort to provide additional clues to the case. Here again, there are some theatre patrons who are intimidated by up-close and personal interaction with the actors. They’d rather sit back and not be bothered. Let me though dispel any unrest for those that fit this description. The actors do not single out any audience member and only spend brief amounts of time at each table. If you are one of those that would rather not be bothered, don’t panic. The actors can tell and they will leave you be without excluding you entirely.
On the contrary, if you enjoy interacting with the characters, this is right up your alley. Any actor who has studied Uta Hagen knows it is the thoughts, not merely the physical manifestation of the reactions, that make something funny or believable. As an actor myself I personally enjoyed the interaction with the characters around our table. I love engaging and probing actors to see just how much they know about their characters.
Yes, the acting is somewhat over-the-top. It is more melodrama than serious drama, after all. This though is exactly what makes it funny and what makes it work. The cast’s commitment to each of the characters they portray is unfailing. Even when wandering through the audience between the acts, the character mask never comes off. They move and speak as character. They interact with the audience and each other as character, but, most importantly, they think the thoughts of the characters they are portraying. With all four actors in this cast, they did not disappoint in their knowledge, responses, mannerisms, or thoughts, regardless as to which character they were portraying.
Speaking of the actors, no theatrical production, no matter what the genre, can be successful without a great cast. Lee Adams does not fall short here either and it is difficult to single out any of the four-person cast as a stand-out since each is quite impressive. As Private “Dick” Chase Taylor, a character he created, embodies, and owns, Adams’ performance is both “intoxicated” and intoxicating. His physical styling and controlled, uncontrollability of his body, reactions, timing, and thought-process are spot-on. With each entrance and exit, he leaves the audience wanting more and more. Adams also has a mastery of improv and uses that to both read and engage the audience flawlessly.
The remaining three actors have the more difficult task of playing multiple characters. For a show that embodies just a four-person cast, Gene Larche (Richard/Survivor Guy), Laura Adams (Rita/Constable Bob), and Chris Denton (Scooter/Ricky/Victor) make up the other seven characters that appear in the show. Larche’s dialect and physical presence as Richard will keep you laughing all night long. Laura Adams’ transformation to Constable Bob and sultry singing voice as Rita are lovely. And, Denton’s contrasting characters of Scooter, whom I can best describe as the Don Knotts’ character of Mr. Furley from “Three’s Company” only on sedatives, and Victor, which is oddly similar to a cross between Colonel Klink and Dr. Evil, are both outstanding and the epitome of comedy.
Perhaps the element that makes this show ultimately successful is the staging. With a traveling show like this one that regularly needs to perform in a new space, this is the most impressive success and pleasant surprise. Many entrances are made from the rear of the theatre and there are portions of scenes that take place with characters simultaneously in the audience and on stage. The absence of the fourth wall allows for an informality and dialogue with the audience that is incredible. It makes us feel as though we are a part of the story. This also allows for much improvisation and even some “breaks” in character.
The more unexpected things that happen on and off the stage, the more tools the cast has to improvise and play with. On the night we attended, malfunctioning cap guns and unintentional choking on a donut provided ample improvisational fuel that lasted seemingly minutes on end. I was nearly in tears on both occasions, not simply from the quick witted improvised banter that was instantly created, but also because the actors themselves found it so funny that they too broke character and laughed along with us. It felt at times as though I were watching an old episode of “The Carol Burnett Show.” Although breaking is typically frowned upon in theatre, the interactive theatre Lee Adams has created and mastered is a perfect vehicle to harness these “real” moments of live comedy.
Whatever your opinion of this type of theatre or murder mysteries in general, I encourage everyone to have “PMS”--Chase Taylor’s “Positive Mental System” to turn a negative attitude into a positive one--because simply put, this show is spectacular. Actually, it is more than just a show. It is an entire entertainment experience, and with that I make my accusation. It was Mr. Adams, in the Theatre, with a solid script, amazing actors, and superb staging. Case closed.
The Mystery Café’s A Man in Pajamas, the first show in St. Croix Off Broadway Dinner Theatre’s 8th season, is located at the Hudson House Grand Hotel in Hudson, WI. It has a varied schedule through October 12 so best to call or check the website. A $56 price tag includes dinner and dessert with nonalcoholic beverages, show, tip, and tax, and will send you home smiling. Get your reservations by calling 715-386-2394 ext. 333 or order them online at stcroixoffbroadway.com. Also Like them on Facebook at facebook.com/SCOBDT for much more insight and information.
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St. Croix Off Broadway Dinner Theatre
1616 Crest View Drive, Hudson, WI 54016 Box Office: (715)386.2394 ext. 333
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