Something's Amiss With "Something Afoot"

by David A. Rosenberg

When is a farce not funny or a melodrama not exciting? Answer: When they’re not taken seriously.

 

“You have to make sure the characters believe in who they are and what they're doing,” said director Robin Armstrong, interviewed in the Dallas News by Lawson Taitte. “The actors can never wink at the audience. I tell them they have to be more real than in any drama they've ever been in."

 

Agrees British director John Caird. In his book “Theater Craft,” he writes, “A good farce obliges the audience to believe in both the characters and the events to the point where laughter is their only recourse."

 

As for melodrama, the same rules apply. Essentially ridiculous situations (“Aha, me proud beauty, if you don’t pay the rent, something dire will happen to you”) work only if exaggerations are tinged with genuine belief. If directors and actors aren’t honest and real, what’s the point?

 

What, then, to do with Goodspeed’s “Something’s Afoot”? This dismal revival of that dreadful musical, purportedly a farcical melodrama, is almost completely without humor or excitement. There’s more wit in Adrian W. Jones’ elegant manor house set, Jason Lyons’ creepy lighting and Tracy Christensen’s attractive period costumes.

 

The musical sets itself up as a spoof of mystery author Agatha Christie, especially her play “Ten Little Indians.” The premise is similar. A group of ostensible strangers is invited to a weekend in the country. Their host, Sir Dudley Rancour, is soon discovered dead in his upstairs bedroom. His demise is announced by the butler thusly: “Lord Rancour is dead. Dinner is served.”

 

One by one the guests are picked off by poisoning, explosion, conking on the head, falling down the stairs, strangulation, etc. But some of the murders are nigh impossible, given whom the killer turns out to be. Christie, who is paid obeisance to in the song “I Owe It All,” had a knack for making the improbable possible. Here, logic is missing and motivations are cloudy. Since we don’t become involved in the characters’ incredulous fates, we cease caring.

 

The melodramatic basics are in place: lightning flashes, thunder, screams, ominous organ music. Every so often action is interrupted by songs of dubious value whose lyrics are all aglow with end rhymes (“courageous/contagious,” “meeting/repeating”). The songs are not un-tuneful, but they’re thrown in as if this were a music hall entertainment, rather than an integrated musical.

 

With music, book and lyrics by James McDonald, David Vos and Robert Gerlach (additional music and lyrics by Ed Linderman), the show premiered at Goodspeed in 1973, wending its way around the country before eventually landing on Broadway where it lasted ten weeks, though a subsequent London production was better received. 

 

At Goodspeed, Vince Pesce’s direction is clueless and his choreography clunky. But the actors rise above the material. Lynne Wintersteller is deliciously snobby as Lady Grace, Ed Dixon is properly pompous as Colonel Gillweather and Benjamin Eakeley comes close to capturing the true farcical spirit as Nigel.

 

As Miss Tweed, the Miss Marple-like sleuth, Audrie Neenan struggles mightily. But the part calls for a Tessie O’Shea, who played the role on Broadway, or Margaret Rutherford, or Alice Ghostley or Nancy Walker -- for a comedienne, in other words, someone whose subtleties and natural sense of mimicry can tickle an audience.

 

In a publicity release, director Pesce and the production’s “conceiver” Casey Hushion, are quoted: “The trap of this show,” they say, “could be to play it for laughs and camp it up. That would do a disservice to (its) elegance and subtlety.”

 

If only they had taken their own advice.

 

“Something’s Afoot” is at Goodspeed Musicals, East Haddam, through Dec. 9. Call 860-873-8668 or visit goodspeed.org

 


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