LOCAL THEATER: A backstage comedy-thriller with Hollywood overtones

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By Jim Roberts

 

Twenty years ago, Jeffery Seneca starred in a college production of “The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940.” This month, he’ll make his directorial debut at the Little Theatre of Virginia Beach with the same show.

“I think I’ve seen it now—both from being in it and directing it—close to 200 times,” Seneca said in a recent interview with Veer Magazine. “I still laugh every night watching it. I’m taking notes, saying, ‘I think you should tighten this up,’ but I’m laughing. To have somebody that’s seen it still finding things to laugh at, I think that’s a good sign.”

The premise: Following the murder of three chorus girls in a Broadway flop, Elsa Von Grossenknueten, the show’s financial backer, summons the cast and crew to her home under the guise of auditioning for a new production—but really to solve the murder mystery. Think “Clue” meets “Noises Off.”

“This show is so campy,” Seneca said. “It’s almost to the point where it’s corny. Whenever you see one of those movies and there’s ‘Dun-Dun-DUNN’ and everybody looks around for the music—that’s almost what this show is.”

The eclectic cast of characters includes Ken De La Maize, a flamboyant, name-dropping Hollywood director; Marjorie Baverstock, a flattering Broadway producer; Roger Hopewell and Bernice Roth, a composer and lyricist, respectively; Eddie McCuen, an out-of-work comedian (reportedly based on Bob Hope); Patrick O’Reilly and Nikki Crandall, a singer and chorus girl (who may be hiding some secrets), and Michael Kelly, a no-nonsense undercover cop.

“They’re not written as characters,” Seneca explained. “They’re written as: How can I make this person the most ridiculous caricature of what you think they should be? That’s how I pitched it. I said I want to go just to that point where it’s almost where you’re like, ‘Oh, my god,’ rolling-your-eyes over-the-top, but not quite.”

When it opened on Broadway in 1987, New York Times critic Mel Gussow called the show a “backstage comedy-thriller with Hollywood overtones.” “The show is also littered excessively with red herrings,” he wrote, “but, bearing with the contrivances, it does provoke laughter, especially in the second act—and it offers elbow room for actors’ antics.”

Seneca says his cast, led by Little Theatre of Virginia Beach veteran James Bryan, is up to the task. “I give them one thing, and they take it to the next level,” he said. “They’re a very easy-to-direct group, and they respond well, and they work really well together. We have some really good chemistry with them.”

Seneca’s association with the Little Theatre of Virginia Beach began last summer when he helped build the set for “Young Frankensetein.” He was quickly promoted to stage manager and has worked on almost every show since, including “School House Rock Live,” which he assistant directed.

“All the shows I’ve done have led up to this point,” he said. “It’s just one step up. Now it’s a little more responsibility, but it was a gradual climb to get here.”

Seneca is confident the show will deliver laughs—even for those, like him, who may have seen it once or twice or 200 times. “Even people building the set or hanging lights, I’ve seen them stop and sit down and hang out for a little while and watch and laugh,” he said. “And then we have to say, ‘Get back to work. We need a set!”

The Little Theatre of Virginia Beach will present “The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940” at 8 p.m. every Friday and Saturday from Sept. 16 through Oct. 9. Tickets are $18 for adults; $3 discounts are available for full-time students, active-duty military and senior citizens. Matinees are offered at 2:30 p.m. every Sunday; those tickets are $15 with no discounts. For more information, visit www.ltvb.com.

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