Clueless in Englewood

You can sense the anticipation building in the audience about fifteen minutes before the Country Dinner Playhouse's production of Clue the Musical begins. Armed with tally sheets that list the suspects, weapons and rooms familiar to anyone who has played the board game of the musical's title, most theatergoers seem eager to meet the dramatic incarnations of their favorite Clue characters. But shortly after we're introduced to Colonel Mustard, Miss Scarlet and the rest of their colorful companions, the bouncy musical takes a nosedive and, for the remainder of the evening, never comes close to realizing its vaunted potential. Despite the best efforts of director Bill McHale and his solid cast of performers, you're left wondering why these poorly drawn characters seem even more plastic and nondescript than their mass-produced game-piece originals. Or why this offbeat show more resembles a two-hour Hasbro infomercial than it does a richly textured version of a popular recreational whodunit. Even the old Clue television commercials had more character than this.

It may be that lyricist Tom Chiodo and Peter DePietro, who wrote the show's book, determined that pandering to the lowest corporate denominator was more important than crafting an enjoyable story--and that two-dimensional characters and insipid dialogue wouldn't be out of place in a musical that's based on the (fiercely copyrighted) contents of a pasteboard box. At least that would begin to explain the idiotic banter that occurs between Colonel Mustard (Marcus Waterman) and Mrs. Peacock (Deborah Persoff) during their first scene. Shortly after the two locate all of the European countries that Hitler invaded by playing an impromptu game of Twister on a large map (the first of many references to a slew of products owned by Hasbro, the parent company of game giants Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley), the pair of intertwined flirts trade a string of lewd barbs. "I can't get you up," grunts the frustrated Peacock. "You certainly can," snarls the lecherous Mustard. As if that weren't enough to fulfill the play's groaner quotient, Mustard and Peacock toss a few more thigh-slappers our way about things that need a yank and loaded pistols that are about to go off. (DePietro seems to have missed the opportunity to hack out a one-liner about whether Mustard can "cut it" anymore.)

Of course, that display of juvenile humor isn't terribly surprising when you consider how the show begins. Following a well-staged, intriguing tableau in which each of the six Clue characters strikes an elegant pose while bathed in colored lights that correspond to their game-piece hues, we meet Mrs. White (portrayed in drag by Eugene Texas), a frowsy English-accented domestic. After attempting to tenderize a plastic rump roast with a polyurethane lead pipe, Texas treats us to a rendition of "Life Is a Bowl of Pits," just one of several saccharine tunes composed by fledgling songsmiths Galen Blum, Wayne Barker and Vinnie Martucci, whose score is of the "Order That Soundtrack Before Midnight So You Don't Forget" variety. In fact, his character's signature song is so bad that you almost wish Texas would stay with his crowd-pleasing slapstick turn--replete with obligatory cleavage adjustments, derriere scratches and giggling fits--rather than belt out several choruses of "Life is a bowl of cherries/None of the pieces fit/I'm always scrambling to survive/Life's a bowl of pits."

Just when you're tempted to speculate that the entire show might be intended as keen satire and that all of the episodes of gasbag humor will somehow refine themselves in a delightful "the joke's on the audience" scene, DePietro piles on more wretched dialogue and gratuitous product references. Described by one character as being a discarded token from Life or Sorry!, a detective (Jan Waterman) enters the confusing fray at the top of Act Two. Sporting a jet-black Prince Valiant hairdo and beige trenchcoat, she stands in sharp relief to the "Crayola wardrobe" worn by Miss Scarlet (Gina Schuh-Turner), Mr. Green (Randy St. Pierre) and Professor Plum (Thaddeus Valdez). In her quest to get to the bottom of who murdered Mr. Boddy (Paul Dwyer), the wily gumshoe glares at Mrs. Peacock and says, "I'm glad I don't have your nerve and my tooth." Then she locks intellectual horns with the purple-suited Plum as the two quote from Euripides, Aristotle, Emerson and Thoreau--which is apparently DePietro's attempt to demonstrate the utter silliness of providing shallow characters with anything resembling intelligent dialogue. Although you'd think that a stuffy philosophical discussion would hardly be entertaining here, this téte à téte actually winds up being the only scene that illuminates each character in ways that aren't painfully crude, obvious or lame. As a result, Waterman and Valdez's lighthearted, humorous exchanges hold our interest and elicit sustained laughter in a manner that DePietro is unable to achieve elsewhere.

To be sure, the actors do what they can with this drivel by embellishing their well-sung portrayals with as much physical humor as they feel comfortable getting away with. And it's occasionally interesting to follow the unfolding trail of evidence--the show boasts 216 possible endings--and to take in a dinner-theater work that isn't yet another remounting of a musical-theater warhorse (though at intermission a group of patrons agreed that the show was "way too hard to follow"). In addition, director McHale's inventive staging and Wendell Vaughn's assured musical direction do much to enhance our enjoyment of the performers' Herculean efforts. But by the time the performers crack jokes about Suzanne Somers's nightclub act, tell each other that "We're as clean as yellow snow" and genuflect in the direction of a Monopoly box, you find yourself more than ready to push away from the table and abandon this trivial pursuit.

Clue the Musical, through March 28 at the Country Dinner Playhouse, 6875 South Clinton Street, Englewood, 303-799-1410.

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Jim Lillie