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The Greatest Generation Lays an Egg 

Plus, a swinging Jungle Book

Considered as a package, Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 has all the earmarks of a megahit -- particularly for its target audience, theater lovers who came of age during World War II. Aside from the ingredients in playwright John Bishop's title, you have unsolved mysteries flavored with Broadway glamour and Nazi menace. You have repeated mentions of Hollywood stars whose fame still blazes more than 65 years later. Plus those sly inside allusions to names long-forgotten, like supersleuth Philo Vance.

A promising feast for those who proudly claim membership in the Greatest Generation. But the promise slowly deflates as the package unravels at Halton Theater.

We first caught wind of Comedy Murders in 1993 when Davidson Community Players took a stab. The putrefaction lingered long enough for me to put that production in the #2 slot in my picks for worst of the year. Tech wasn't nearly as bad as the terrible acting.

In hindsight, I don't think I fully appreciated what the cast was up against. For the most part, the ensemble gathered by CPCC Summer Theatre performed admirably last Saturday night -- under conditions that presented unusual difficulties.

At the new Halton, the library of the Von Grossenkneuten mansion can assume a grandeur never dreamt of at Pease Auditorium during CP's first 32 seasons. Workmanship for the secret passageways didn't keep up the favorable first impression made by James Duke's opulent set design. A revolving bookcase, purportedly triggered by a pen in an inkwell, hardly ever responded on cue and often became stuck in mid-revolve.

But the sheer size -- and newfound depth -- of current CP extravaganzas present new logistical problems. CP director Tom Hollis had his Stage Door Slasher scampering from downstage to upstage during an early blackout. Lights came up, alas, before the serial killer could stow himself in the closet.

Nor did he emerge afterwards when the closet was reopened, betraying the existence of a secret passage beyond and setting the tone for the technical sloppiness that ensued. Credit the professionalism of the cast (and dealing with similar snafus throughout the rehearsal process?) with averting catastrophe.

Kevin Campbell was remarkably cool handling the varied vicissitudes of director Ken De La Maize, among the chief song-and-dance suspects Elisa Von G has reassembled in an attempt to solve the mystery. Elyse Williams managed to coax the lioness's share of laughs as Bernice Roth, the lyricist for the bogus musical Von G pretends to be bankrolling. Or at least she does until Roth devolves into a drunken, fainting caricature.

Tony Wright has a lot of fun as composer Roger Hopewell, throwing his massive conceit lustily to the rear seats of the balcony -- no mean feat at the 1,020-seat Halton. Equally orotund is Victor Abate as Patrick O'Reilly, with an Irish accent as phony as an eight-leaf clover. Purposely so.

These clarion voices tend to make Polly Adkins sound underpowered as Von Grossenkneuten, nor does she capture all of our hostess's earnest dithering to comical effect. Worse by far is Joanna Long as housemaid Helsa Wenzel -- and two or three other Germanic roles -- only fitfully intelligible all evening long.

A blizzard rages outside, which may be the cause of the blackouts. Flurries of corny patter and frenzied action break out as members of our dramatis personae open themselves to meat cleaver, knife or sword. So swift are the flurries that we don't really form any suspicion about who the perpetrator might be. Shouldn't we care? Mystery buffs who revere S.S. Van Dine and his Philo will be dismayed by the profusion of red herrings and random violence.

While some of the musical party are put to the blade, others are whisked away, then gagged or bound, and ultimately recycled. Inconsistencies like these are never explained, and you really shouldn't pay attention to the killers' footwear.

Fortunately, at the center of all this chaos are Emily Van Dyke as wholesome actress Nikki Crandall -- costume design stolen from Little Orphan Annie -- and Ashby Blakely as nebbishy comedian Eddie McCuen. They spark instantly, an oasis of romantic authenticity as they solve the mystery and fall in love. Almost miraculous when you consider all the dumb wisecracks Blakely is saddled with.

Hollis directs the moribund script with plenty of spirit, but he makes two fundamental casting mistakes. John Price just doesn't have the hard-boiled mien that would be appropriate for detective Michael Kelly, nor does he sustain the film noir pacing we expect.

On the other casting blunder, I'll be somewhat circumspect. Let me suggest that if a masked or hooded killer is repeatedly roaming the stage, the more actors you have who are the same size, the keener our mystification will be.

Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 is not one of those gleaming, intricate creations that runs with the precision of a stately Rolls Royce. No, it's more like a rusty old hot rod. On a muddy, dirt track. That can be a lot of fun, at times, partly because of all the things that are going wrong -- and the mess some fine actors have gotten into.

Cross over to the north side of Elizabeth Street, and you'll find that CP is still producing kiddie musicals at 10am in panoramic Pease. With Summer Theatre's annual comedy transplanted to Halton, scenery for the morning shows needn't be stricken before dark.

Gary Sivak takes fine advantage in The Jungle Book -- The Musical, giving us lush foliage that meshes well with his tropical lighting design. Stage director Ron Chisholm, teaming with musical director Jean Colgan Phillips in her Charlotte debut, manages to inject fresh charm into the tepid Vera Morris adaptation of the beloved Rudyard Kipling classic.

What really keeps the pizzazz flowing onstage is Matthew Keffer's ebullient portrayal of Mowgli, the man-cub adopted by wolves, schooled by bear and panther, who grows to jungle leadership. Keffer made an edgy debut in Parade and delivers even more impressive work here, with a winsome rendition of "I Am Mowgli" even before the narrative machinery creaks into motion.

He's abetted by a rainbow of fine costume and mask designs from Jennifer Matthews as we meet the rest of the jungle community. Maurice Whitfield truly hot-wires the tension as the evil tiger Shere Khan, the beast who orphaned Mowgli and thirsts for his blood. Anklebiter parents need to brace themselves for Whitfield's ferocity, only slightly softened by cunning.

Comic relief, as welcome as a jungle stream, flows our way via Corey Cray as a fawning jackal, Morgan Rose as chattery mongoose Rikki-Tikki and Marc Bastos as the slack-backed Monkey King. The monkey ensembles, choreographed by Eddie Mabry, nearly steal the show.

We test drove Jungle Book with a 4-year-old and a 10-year-old. Two little thumbs up.

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