Sunday, April 19, 2009

Theater review: With 'Something's Afoot,' Caldwell stubs its toe

Michael Shawn Lewis, Elizabeth Dimon and Lisa Manuli
in the Caldwell Theatre's Something's Afoot.
(Photo by Sean Lawson)

By Hap Erstein

BOCA RATON -- Throughout its history, the most outstanding element of Caldwell Theatre productions has been its scenic designs, nearly all by the tirelessly inventive Tim Bennett.

So you have to wonder with the murder mystery musical spoof Something’s Afoot, the Caldwell’s current show, could retiring artistic director Michael Hall be saying to us: “Notice how we can choice any lame material and still impress you with how clever we can make it look”?

In his director’s note, Hall claims that Something’s Afoot is one of his all-time favorite musicals. If that is really true and not just promotional hype, perhaps it is time for him to pass on the theater’s reins to someone with more discerning taste.

The show’s script by James McDonald, Davis Vos and Robert Gerlach purports to make fun of the whodunits by Agatha Christie -- particularly her highly successful The Mousetrap -- but it only manages a pale facsimile of them in toothless homage. The score, by the same three guys with additional music by Ed Linderman, is a string of mostly forgettable ditties that rarely move the story forward or serve any other useful function.

Best of the songs is a single entendre salute to boating, (I’ve Got a Tiny Little) Dinghy, a tangent that has nothing to do with the story. Most of the others just restate the obvious, like the endless faux-Coward opening number, (We’ve Been Invited to) A Marvelous Weekend, and the repetitive title tune.

For the record, Something’s Afoot did make it to Broadway in 1976, where it ran for 61 performances before closing and becoming relegated to community theater and unadventurous summer stock. If the point of this production is to give incoming artistic director Clive Cholerton an easy act to follow, then and only then does it makes perfect sense.

Anyway, the show takes place in 1935, at the British country estate of Lord Dudley Rancour, who has sent weekend invitations to six seemingly unconnected guests. No sooner do they arrive that a torrential downpour washes out the bridge to the property, stranding them all. Then the telephone wires get cut and houseguests and staff members start meeting ghoulish, gimmicky deaths.

Their demises are perpetrated by various booby traps and mechanical effects within Bennett’s set, the only element of the show with a comic point of view. Characters meet their ends -- or nearly so -- from a breakaway staircase railing, a plummeting chandelier, a poisonous blow dart, a display of African spears that has a mind of its own, faulty telephone wiring and a human-sized urn.

First to be dispatched without ever being seen is Lord Rancour, unimaginatively killed by a pistol. His death sends his greedy nephew Nigel (Jim Ballard) scurrying to find his uncle’s will. Either it will prove him the rightful heir to his uncle’s fortune or he will destroy the document. Also on hand are Lady Grace Manley-Prowe (Angie Radosh) and jungle adventurer Col. Gillweather (John Felix), who have a secret past together, plus ingenue Hope Langdon (Lisa Manuli in a dreadful curly blonde wig) and an uninvited college student named Geoffrey (Michael Shawn Lewis) who is soon smitten with Hope.

Elizabeth Dimon plays the deductive Miss Tweed, the show’s Marple-tinged sleuth, while the estate staff consists of maid Lettie (Crista Moore), caretaker Flint (Terry Hardcastle) and butler Clive (Don Stansfield, who happens to be the first cast member to bite the dust).

Something’s Afoot is the sort of show that requires its performers to make the material seem better than it is, as Felix does with an amusing multi-part death scene and Moore, who adds an extra lilt to Barbara Flaten’s unexceptional choreography. Bennett makes a brief appearance as Dr. Grayburn, long enough to make the point that switching to become the company’s technical director was a savvy career move. Even the reliable Dimon seems stymied by the plodding role of Miss Tweed.

Still, the cast is far more interesting than the show they try desperately to sell us. The thought of them having to keep doing Something’s Afoot for the next five weeks is cringe-worthy. Not that he is without blame, but it is unfortunate that this is the show with which Hall makes his exit.

SOMETHING’S AFOOT, 7901 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton. Through May 17. Tickets: $36-$42. Call: (561) 241-7432 or (877) 245-7432.


C.L.J. said...

The correct URL for the Caldwell is

Anonymous said...

It would be lovely to hear a review. Instead, this is a sad attempt at lashing out with bitter force. You can read about the synopsis before you go. I found it in poor taste to insult one thing after another, rather than reviewing the performances.