Dial “M” for Murder (Weathervane Playhouse – Newark, OH)

I mainly knew of Dial “M” for Murder because of growing up viewing the 1954 Alfred Hitchcock film starring Ray Milland and Grace Kelly; I went through all of the Hitchcock films before getting out of grade school. The film is considered second tier Hitchcock, still better than first rate most anyone else, and I had always enjoyed it. The Frederick Knott play from which the film was adapted premiered on Broadway in the fall of 1952 and ran for nearly a year and a half; it closed just a few months before the film version was released. I saw the restored film projected in its original 3-D at the Wexner Center for the Arts this past March, so I had the story fresh in my mind when I attended the Weathervane Playhouse production of Dial “M” for Murder this past weekend. I’ll admit that I was tempted not to go as I had just seen the film again, and that would’ve been a mistake; Dial “M” for Murder perhaps works better as a play, and this is a solid production with its own flavor different from the film.

The story concerns how Tony Wendice, a former tennis pro, coerces a former classmate, Captain “Lesgate” (he has several names we find out), into murdering his adultering wife, Margot. You see, Tony knows about the affair Margot has been carrying on with television writer Max Halliday, and he knows enough about his former school chum to make him compliant in the idea of murder. However, Tony doesn’t plan on how things end up turning out, or that a certain Inspector Hubbard may hold the key (no pun intended) to unraveling the plot.

Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com) – Patrick Clements as Tony Wendice
Patrick Clements plays Tony as all suave and sly, almost too slick to believe. He looks remarkably like Cary Elwes in The Princess Bride, and I was glad to see him as the lead after his clowning around in The Pajama Game a few weeks back. His interpretation was a little too slippery for me as he has to come off as genuinely affectionate towards his wife and above suspicion for the piece to fully work, not like a used car salesman with some nefarious clauses hidden in the fine print. Molly Griggs is Margot, closely hewing to Grace Kelly’s interpretation though perhaps even more vulnerable; her cultured accent is particularly good, and she wears her complicated hairstyle with confidence. Clay Singer, who was Sid to Molly’s Babe in the aforementioned The Pajama Game, plays her beau again as Max Halliday, making the most out of the slight part. Layne Roate is poor, coerced Captain Lesgate, coming off as a real ne’er-do-well while also owning it. Jason Samples as Inspector Hubbard is adept at bringing the audience along to follow his train of thought, quite important in the resolution of this piece. The actor who played the role in the film confused me when I first saw it, but Jason’s lines sprout naturally as he takes in the scene; he genuinely seems to care that the audience be along with him for the ride.

Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com) – Set Design: Jeremy Hollis
The entire play takes place in the Wendice apartment, elaborately designed by Jeremy Hollis; it is perhaps the most important character in the play. The apartment looks lived in, albeit by affluent tenants, and the requisite window, desk, and doors that open out into the hall are all there as needed by the plot. Great attention appears to have been played in decorating the set as well and including props where they would naturally be found, not as obvious instruments needed for the script. Director Tim Browning and lighting designer Jennifer Sansfacon work well together in creating a tense murder scene with shards of light piecing the outline of the double doors that slowly open to reveal Layne entering the apartment with murder on his mind. The scene is stylish in a way that would only work on stage, and the audience didn’t dare breathe during it.

I will say that the best place to sit for this production is in the center section, even if you’re in the back rows. I moved to the front right for the second half of the show and missed seeing the faces of the actors during some critical moments. Another patron commented that the desk and chair blocked her view when she was seated in the left section, so aim for as close to the center as you can.

There were a few snafus at the performance I attended, though I was told they they only occurred at that Saturday matinee. There is a scene in the first act that requires both doors to the apartment be open so that the placement of a certain key is visible, but this was hidden from most of the audience because one door remained shut, apparently locked in error. The murder scene also played out a bit awkwardly as the scissors fell off of the desk to the floor during the struggle. I have to hand it to Molly and Layne for integrating into their performance as well as they did; Molly lunged off the desk for those scissors with a determination that made me chuckle. I knew the play couldn’t go on unless she got them to defend herself and she surely knew it too, but I’m sure the audience didn’t notice; they were too wrapped up in the proceedings at full attention to notice anything that may have been off.

For someone quite familiar with the movie, I didn’t expect the play to be so enjoyable or engaging. Some of the plot points even played out better in this setting, as I think it was easier to follow just where Tony went awry in his plans in the play. It can’t be easy to stage such a play when a popular film version exists, but director Tim Browning and his fine ensemble have succeeded in making it stand proudly on its own quite capable feet.

*** out of ****

Dial “M” for Murder continues through to July 25th at the Weathervane Playhouse in Newark, OH (around 45 minutes outside Columbus), and more information can be found at http://weathervaneplayhouse.org/weathervane-playhouses-2015-summer-season/dial-m-murder/

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The Pajama Game (Weathervane Playhouse – Newark, OH)

It’s sometimes difficult to pinpoint exactly what makes a show work or not work, especially when there are moments that are good and then others quite awful all in the same production. There can be a lot of talent evident on stage, but that isn’t enough to carry the evening if it isn’t directed properly. And that, unfortunately, is the case with the Weathervane Playhouse production of The Pajama Game, which is a very mixed bag of both delights and coal, tough to take for even the most diverse of palettes.

The Pajama Game, based on the novel 7 1/2 Cents by Richard Bissell about labor disputes at the Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory over a raise, premiered on Broadway in 1954 and ran for two and a half years. With music and lyrics by the team of Jerry Ross and Richard Adler (they teamed up the following year for Damn Yankees before Ross’s untimely death at age twenty-nine in 1955) and book co-authored by the legendary George Abbott, The Pajama Game won the Tony Award for Best Musical and went on to be made into a successful film version in 1957 starring Doris Day. “Hey There” was the breakout song from the show that went on to become an often recorded standard, but the score also includes such gems as “I’m Not At All in Love,” “There Once Was a Man,” and “Once a Year Day.”

I saw and enjoyed the Tony-winning 2006 revival of the show starring Harry Connick Jr. and Kelli O’Hara, and I’m a big fan of the energetic film version. It was with fond memories of those productions that I attended the Weathervane Playhouse last night, excited to see a light, frothy musical performed in such an intimate setting. What I got was incredibly uneven, the result of weak direction, miscasting, and a lack of energy.

First, the good; Molly Griggs is an excellent Babe Williams, the grievance committee leader who falls for the new superintendent, Sid Sorokin, played by an iffy Clay Singer. Molly is stern but likable, and hers is the kind of voice that carries from the stage without sounding harsh or unpleasant. She brings chemistry to her scenes with Clay for sure, and she wears her smart ’50s fashions with confidence. In fact, costume designer Cora Delbridge and her assistant Kerbie Minor deserve special recognition for outfitting everyone in period-looking garb that evokes the era without being a caricature of itself. Everyone certainly looks great and moves comfortably as if the clothes they’re wearing were theirs and theirs alone. Everyone sings incredibly well too, especially Clay and Layne Roate as Hines, and it was a joy to see character actress Kayla Walsh hamming it up as Mae after standing out in One Man, Two Guvnors just a few weeks ago. Steve Herbst as Pop is sweet and genuine as well, though he does stand out awkwardly when they put him in ensemble numbers like “Once a Year Day” with all the kids. Barbe Helwig is a delightful Mabel, and her soft shoe in “I’ll Never Be Jealous Again” is adorable.

And now for the bad; Patrick Clements as Prez is handsome, engaging, and masculine in a way that makes him more suited to play Sid, and though Clay puts forth admirable effort as Sid, I see him playing Hines more effectively than the grotesque characterization that Layne Roate is peddling. Hines is the main source of comic relief in the play, but Layne oversells it to the point of being unpleasant and unlikable, and yet his singing voice is truly golden. Mugging isn’t acting, and proper guidance could’ve helped him reign in his performance to elicit genuine laughs verses the rote guffaws I head from a few loud audience members who seemed to be vocal in their support in an effort to let Layne know that they got the point and to move on to the next scene.

And boy did getting to the next scene take time. The overall tempo of the music is too slow, and the pacing within scenes is also off, as if the actors are afraid to step on each other’s lines (it happened anyway once near the end with Molly, and it was the most natural moment in the whole show). The slower music also had an effect on the choreography as it often felt like the performers didn’t have enough to do in their space, but that may also be due to the rushed rehearsal and performance demands on putting on so many shows in a short amount of time. Where was director Valerie Accetta to show Travis Burch (First Helper and ensemble member) and Layne Roate how to act drunk convincingly? They act drunk like people who have never been drunk, staggering around like they’ve been shot more than having had too much to drink.

It’s tough to picture “Steam Heat” performed in any way other than the one designed by Bob Fosse and preserved on film with three dancers in black suits and top hats, but choreographer Tracy Rae Wilson puts forth an admirable effort. EJ King and Brendan Henderson bring energy and pep to the show during their dance that is missing from the rest of the show, though they mostly dance around poor Demi Ahlert as Gladys, another miscast performer who smiles at Layne’s antics as Hines when she should be annoyed and needs additional coaching on how to play drunk.

Though the set pieces that move onto the stage to represent changing locations from Babe’s kitchen to Hernando’s Hideaway are well designed, why is the pajama factory where most of the action takes place so starkly represented? I didn’t expect the rows of clotheslines with pajama tops and bottoms gliding across the stage like I saw on Broadway, but certainly something more than the bland pastel geometric shapes on display here is warranted.

The show itself is very much of its time to be sure, but its charms are still intact, even though I’m sure human resources would have intervened to put a stop to a lot of the events in the story if it took place today (Sid all but sexually harassing Babe; Hines throwing knives about in jealously over Gladys; the factory workers slowing down and issuing defective pajamas, etc.). The songs are performed extremely well, and there is some joy to be found in this near three-hour production, but I left feeling that with a firmer hand and some Red Bull this production could’ve been so much more.

** out of ****

The Pajama Game continues through to July 11th in Newark, OH (around 45 minutes outside Columbus), and more information can be found at http://weathervaneplayhouse.org/weathervane-playhouses-2015-summer-season/pajama-game/

Photo: Chad DiBlasio (www.diblasiophoto.com) – Scenic Designer: Rebecca Wolf
My friend Michael Nalepka and me. I knew when he started breathing loudly that he was getting frustrated.