(*homocinematically inclined)

Friday, January 22, 2016

Reverend's Reviews: Death & Disney at Long Beach Playhouse


Whodunnit? That is the question frequently posed and ultimately popularized by Agatha Christie, murder-mystery writer extraordinaire. She set the standard for the genre in assembling various people, each with a potential motive and alibi, in the proximity of a mysterious death. It then falls to one of them to deduce clues and identify the killer.

Christie's play The Mousetrap premiered in London in 1952 and has played continuously there ever since. It is currently enjoying a local revival on Long Beach Playhouse's Mainstage through February 13th. Based on Three Blind Mice, a radio play Christie wrote in 1947 to mark (somewhat oddly) Queen Mary's 80th birthday, it incorporates all the author's trademark elements with perhaps a bit more humor than readers of her novels may be accustomed to.

A group of apparent strangers gathers during the opening weekend of a county inn outside London. A snowstorm (nicely visualized by this production's tech crew) is raging outside. The inn's owners, Giles and Mollie Ralston, are a young and somewhat overwhelmed married couple. Their guests are Christopher Wren, an over-excited architect; Mrs. Boyle, a crotchety, critical spinster; Major Metcalf, retired from her Majesty's army; Miss Casewell, a self-described socialist given to dressing like a man; and the seemingly Italian Paravicini, who shows up at the house when his car breaks down nearby.

While Mrs. Boyle isn't happy, all is generally going well until the arrival of Sergeant Trotter, an inspector with Scotland Yard. He reports that he has been sent there in the wake of an earlier murder in London. The victim had a connection to the Ralstons' neighborhood and her killer may be in the vicinity. These fears are confirmed when Mrs. Boyle is discovered dead. Act two of The Mousetrap serves as a police procedural while Sergeant Trotter investigates the suspects. Being an Agatha Christie work, there is naturally a twist ending which the audience is subsequently sworn not to reveal. This secret has largely been kept for 64 years now.

The chief strength of any production of The Mousetrap aside from its text is its cast, and director Jeff Brown has lined up a fine one at the Playhouse. As Mrs. Boyle and Major Metcalf, respectively, Kathleen Fabry and Doug Seagraves are obvious old pros. Anissa Loer and Lee Samuel Tanng, both seen last fall in the Playhouse's staging of Hay Fever, exude boundary-pushing charisma as Miss Casewell and Christopher Wren. Sri Chilukuri and Andrea Pincus, both making their LBP debuts, make a sympathetic pair as Mr. and Mrs. Ralston, while Cort Huckabone is an effectively creepy Paravicini. For me, however, young Bradley Roa II's assured, commanding turn as Sergeant Trotter was the standout performance in this altogether commendable and entertaining production. Please visit Long Beach Playhouse website or call 562-494-1014 for tickets.

Now playing upstairs at the Playhouse in the Studio Theatre through January 23rd is a decidedly different yet equally not-to-be-missed show, Digested Disney. It is the brainchild of friends and lifelong Disney fans Sean Engard and John Schwendinger, who both wrote and perform this impressive, 90-minute homage to all 50+ animated feature films produced to date (in chronological order) by the fabled studio. Well, almost all 50+ of them. A few are mentioned but skipped over due to the writer-actors' amusing admitted biases.

Things get off to a rollicking start with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, presented as an episode of The Dating Game with Engard as the husband-seeking princess and Schwendinger channeling all seven dwarfs. This is followed shortly after by such inspirations as a funeral/eulogy for Bambi's mother, Peter Pan as a film noir-ish detective story, and the villainous Cruella DeVil of 101 Dalmatians at a wildlife conservation gathering.

Schwendinger and/or Engard perform sung synopses of the more contemporary films The Black Cauldron, Pocahontas (with the dance hit "Uptown Funk" re-dubbed "Jamestown Funk") and Hercules. Their very funny take on Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame serves as "a cautionary tale about how not to take advice from stoned friends," referencing the movie's gargoyle characters. Things culminate in a hilarious Frozen finale that finds Engard sporting full Elsa drag. There are also timely references to Disney-owned Star Wars and even the Playhouse's Mousetrap production downstairs.

Not all the show's skits work, especially a dated version of Alice in Wonderland as the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? TV game show. And while audience participation in this kind of production has great potential, there is a little too much of it especially since it is obvious most of the participants have been pre-selected and rehearsed. With a bit more finessing, practice and promotion, though, Digested Disney could prove itself very popular, especially among fellow Disney fans. For information about the current and future performances, visit the show's website.

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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