Pocket Sandwich Theatre takes a break from its usual popcorn-throwing fluff to give audiences something better to chew on, the premiere of Death: The Musical, a new R-rated musical comedy by Dallas composer-writer Scott A. Eckert. The title might be a harder sell than Macbeth, but the show itself is a clever thing built around a deliciously complicated concept.
It's Noises Off meets Sweeney Todd when a low-end company of 12 actors attempts to perform a bland British drawing room mystery called Death Notwithstanding. Before the play-within-the-play begins, however, the bloke begging the audience to turn off their cell phones suddenly turns toes up center stage. "Curtain speech guy" is the first casualty in a series of murders that fells cast members one by one. The pattern is quickly established: Each time someone is offed in the interior farce, the actor in that role meets his or her doom offstage right after. Soon the smart ones in the cast start refusing to exit, but the others force them to stick to the script. Bodies keep piling up (in one case, dropping from the rafters) until the big reveal of the backstage murderer in the finale.
Eckert, a frequent musical director for shows at Uptown Players and other Dallas theaters, really has something here. His melodies are bright and fast, with opportunities for good voices to belt some big notes. His lyrics are wickedly witty. Most of the songs offer bitter observations on the drearier aspects of the acting life. In "The Show Must Go On," they sing: "It's not for the dreams of glamour and glitz/It's a fool who believes they'll come true/We crawl through the flops and fly through the hits/Just to say that we've done them all when we're through."
The bimbo starlet, all sexy squeaks and deadpan stares as played by Alexis Nabors, gets the best spotlight solo, "Never Mind Carly," confessing she's perfectly willing to use her bouncy assets to get ahead: "Maybe I'm needy/Maybe I'm cheap/Maybe I prefer the course that doesn't run deep." The company diva, Vivian, played by dynamite singer Sara Shelby-Martin, gets an 11 o'clock number that seems inspired by "Rose's Turn" in Gypsy. In "I'm Going Back," Viv imagines returning to Broadway, where she once reigned: "I'm going back for good/This time I'll hold on tighter/I'll take the track I should have run before, a second chance to be/The star I once was, brighter."
Eckert has an impressive, Sondheim-y knack for crisp rhymes. In one comic patter song, a character actor (Jonathan McCurry) who specializes in portraying the victim brags about his talent for getting croaked. The tune's called "You've Never Really Lived Until You've Died":
I've been smashed, crashed, trashed and bashed,
Pilled and poison darted.
Sliced, riced, julienne-diced,
Grilled and Cuisinarted.
Some people claim it's a job for a dunce,
They say, "Dying is easy, comedy's hard,"
Try doing 'em both at once!
There's a lot of polish on the script and score of Death: The Musical, but Pocket's version, directed by Regis Allison, is so rough around the edges it could use another week of rehearsals. All the shows at Pocket Sandwich Theatre are done on the cheap; this is Dallas' only for-profit theater, and they spare all expense when it comes to production values. But this time the scenery is especially ugly-saggy. Unimaginative lighting turns the actors ghostly pale even before their characters' demises. Costumes are a hodgepodge of ape-armed suits and puckered seams. On opening night, all sorts of odd techie bits went awry, including a misbehaving follow-spot, a microphone that dropped from the ceiling barely missing an actress' noggin, and a scrim curtain that got caught halfway down and hung there askew as actors tried to duck and dodge around it. With such great material to work with, it's a shame they couldn't do a better job of showcasing it.
Most of the cast also lacks professional gloss. Tony Martin and wife Sara Shelby-Martin are the pros, hitting every note and landing every laugh line. Nabors is good, too, though it's hard to hear her un-miked voice at times, even in the intimate setting. Same goes for the thin singing of young Jad B. Saxton as the ingénue. Loree Westbrooks has some broad moments as the bawdy maid. The rest of the ensemble is enthusiastic but almost painfully amateurish, often breaking out of character to laugh at their own missteps (a theatrical sin the Brits call "corpsing").
Still, there's a lot of lively fun in this thanatopsy-turvy musical. View before expiration date.
Dead Man's Cell Phone is dead on arrival at Fort Worth's Stage West. Playwright Sarah Ruhl is part of that over-praised new generation of East Coast women playmakers (count Theresa Rebeck and Lynn Nottage in the sorority) who grabs onto a gimmicky hook and hangs two acts' worth of conversation on it.
This one does open with a promising premise. A lonely 39-year-old woman named Jean (played by Dana Schultes with one blank facial expression) grows increasingly bothered by the ringing cell phone of a stranger, Gordon Gottlieb (Michael Corolla), who's sitting alone in a deserted New York café. When she approaches to ask why he's ignoring the rings, she discovers Gordon's a stiff, held upright in his seat by some early stage of rigor mortis. The phone rings again, and Jean flips it open. "Hello?" Pause as she holds a spoon to his lips to see if he's breathing. "No, he's not. Can I take a message?"
And with that, Jean wanders down the rabbit hole of Gordon's life. She meets his nearest and dearest, including an overbearing mother (Sylvia Luedtke, wearing a gray wig so shiny it looks like a steel helmet), unhappy wife Hermia (Emily Scott Banks), spaced-out brother Dwight (Dan Forsythe) and a mistress (Elizabeth Van Winkle-Haberkorn). All that's in the first act, which follows a believable, if meandering, path that seems to suggest we are all one ringy-dingy away from having our lives autopsied by strangers.
Everything goes surreally wonky in the second act as Jean discovers how Gordon made a living. Not a good guy. And he says as much in a 12-minute monologue delivered by the dead man.
Ruhl abandons all vestige of logic after that. Jean becomes party to a bizarre organ-swapping scheme that culminates in a fist-fight (badly choreographed) in a Johannesburg airport. Then she dies, comes back to life and is reunited with Dwight, who seduces her with embossed stationery. There is also ice dancing.
Two hours of mordant, metaphysical mumbo-jumbo—"When everyone has their cell phones on, no one is there," Jean muses. "It's like we're all disappearing the more we're there"—Dead Man's Cell Phone is not nearly as well-crafted as Ruhl's previous dark comedy about facing death, The Clean House, which Stage West produced last season. This newer one never shakes off the tone of an extended eulogy. Director Jim Covault doesn't help by pacing the show so lethargically a nap not only provides an escape from the dull hum of the play, it's inevitable. The audience should get a wake-up call when it's time to go home.