By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
A bad review can be murder. So let's establish right now that actor-writer Kurt Kleinmann and his merry band of Pegasus Theatre players are first-rate, top-notch, good-looking, love-their-shoes artistic geniuses who deserve every kind adjective, gilded accolade, naked statue and freebie-stuffed goody bag their profession allows. Kiss, kiss, hug, hug and excuse me while I tiptoe softly toward the exit before somebody spikes my spritzer.
With A Critical Case of Murder!, Kleinmann, founder of and creative force behind Pegasus, plots two short acts full of revenge against mean old theater critics. Influenced in part by the 1973 Vincent Price movie Theatre of Blood, Kleinmann's new comic mystery makes victims of any ink-stained kvetch who dares to pen a pan. The killer in the piece knocks off scribes one by one after they've knocked the work of a small company of actors and directors to whom said killer is loyal. Each homicide is tailored to fit each critic's scathing review. "Box-office poison," you say? Get out the cyanide.
It's a cute conceit. But—hold on while I flip the deadbolt and pull down the shades—like so many past Pegasus productions, Critical Case promises more than it delivers. Give it a C-minus for script, a B-plus for execution. Wait, who said execution?
Broadway Our Way: Dirty Rotten Divas continues through January 14 at the Trinity River Arts Center, 214-219-2718.
There are a few constants in Kleinmann's work. His plays are inspired by the B-movie mysteries of yesteryear, the old Charlie Chan flicks and film noir classics such as Laura and Casablanca. Pegasus cleverly mimics the look of those films through Kleinmann's trademarked black and white makeup process, which renders the stage set, costumes, props and every inch of the actors, except for their pink tongues and bloodshot eyeballs, into shades of vintage celluloid grays and silvers.
Visually, Kleinmann's shows have style in spades, and the new one is even more stylish than previous Pegasus epics. Aaron Patrick Turner's vampy 1930s costumes and scenic designer Wade Giampa's big-city police station set look stunning on the stage at Richardson's Eisemann Center.
Where A Critical Case of Murder! shoots itself in both feet is on the page. Kleinmann the playwright is the same as Kleinmann the actor (he always plays the lead in his works as bumbling detective and "aspiring actor" Harry Hunsacker). He and his dialogue are all obvious moves and hammy expressions. He gets the look of film noir right but misses too much of the subtle menace and devious wit of the writing. If his scripts had just a touch more Billy Wilder about them, he'd really have some killer material.
Too much of the first act in this one is wasted on extraneous chitchat about an ongoing feud between another stock character, a police lieutenant named Foster (A. Raymond Banda), and the meddling Hunsacker. There are silly bits with Foster and a telephone that go on and on for days. Part of the problem there lies in Banda's amateurish acting, but Kleinmann loyally casts the same so-so actors in every Pegasus production, so you have to put up with Banda and with stiff-armed Timothy Honnoll as Hunsacker's smarter assistant, Nigel Grouse. On opening night, Honnoll had to stop and start over several times after getting tongue-tied on Kleinmann's dialogue. At least on film, you get only the best take in the finished product.
The jokes in Critical Case are so old they could draw pensions, so director Coy Covington has had to work his magic on the script by inventing some funny business for the actors to do. Covington, who knows a thing or three about the "glamour talk" and attitudes of old movie stars from his en traviste roles at Uptown Players, choreographs the cast to whip their heads around in unison to punch up key plot points. And he's managed to keep them still when Kleinmann's script forgets that five characters upstage have nothing to do while two characters downstage are carrying on for a quarter of an hour. At the end of the second act, a sight gag involving two men and a lady on a window ledge with an unlucky pigeon is almost worth suffering all that comes before it.
This is not to say that A Critical Case of Murder! doesn't provide 95 minutes of light entertainment. It does, if you keep expectations low. Critics go in expecting the best and if we're then disappointed and our reviews come out sounding a little harsh...um, did someone say arsenic tastes a little bit like almonds?
This year's, subtitled Dirty Rotten Divas, may be the best one yet. It's a Big Gay Talent Show celebrating Uptown's past season (Pageant!), previewing its next (Hair! Valley of the Dolls!) and mixing in more than 20 big numbers from Broadway shows. Here, however, the men sing songs intended for female characters and the women sing the men's solos. So you get Amy Stevenson belting out "It is I, Don Quixote! The Lord of La Mancha!" (something the singer probably did lots of times, though not this loudly, at her box-office job during WaterTower's recent run of Man of La Mancha).
Natalie Wilson King offers a beautiful version of "When I First Saw You" from Dreamgirls (sung in the movie by Jamie Foxx). Patty Breckenridge sings the hell out of "Being Alive," Bobby's final number from Stephen Sondheim's Company.
When it's the men's turn, it can get a little randy, which Uptown audiences love. In tiny gym towels, Cedric Neal, John de los Santos and Chad Peterson undulate their cute little bods around The Pajama Game's "Steam Heat." Special guest B.J. Cleveland works up some sweat bleating "Diva's Lament" from Spamalot. Peterson comes back to wax romantic about "Taylor the Latte Boy," a song from Adventures in Love made famous in umpteen late-night renditions by Kristin Chenoweth. Gary Floyd, another Uptown favorite, lends his smooth and sexy voice to "Hold On" from The Secret Garden. Doug Miller hosts the early part of the show as his oily, over-tanned beauty contest emcee character from Pageant, then makes his solo, "My Brother Lived in San Francisco" (Angels, Punks and Raging Queens), the emotional high point of the evening.
Also in the cast: M. Denise Lee, Linda Leonard, Courtney Franklin, Lisa Gabrielle-Greene, Cameron McElyea, Tony Martin, Arianna Movassagh, Cara Statham Serber, Sara Shelby-Martin and Andi Allen (who also wrote and directed the show, with only four rehearsals before opening). In Dirty Rotten Divas, there's dancing, comedy (thanks to a side-splitting take on the "When You Got It, Flaunt It" number from The Producers) and every great big voice in Dallas musical theater on one stage. If you miss it, it's a dirty, rotten shame.