Every January Kurt Kleinmann’s Pegasus Theatre “defies gravity” at the Eisemann Center by inaugurating the new year with an original play from its unique niche – the trademarked In Living Black & White production style. In 2012 Pegasus delights its established audiences and charms new ones with a revamped, refreshed version of a production drawn from the vault of its 1980’s Deep Ellum incarnation, “The Frequency of Death!”Set in the live recording studio of radio station WKIL, the play spoofs the melodramatic style of 1930’s era’s black-and-white movies with a murder mystery within a murder mystery, featuring a cast of loveable cranks, curmudgeons and distressed dames and damsels.
Familiar goofballs like “world famous detective and aspiring actor”, the bumbling Harry Hunsacker (Kurt Kleinmann), and his handsome, lovelorn Watson-like sidekick Nigel Grouse (Ben Bryant), match wits with the disembodied evil Dr. Big as the wacky radio station staff and its inept management attempt to produce a radio program with live onstage sound effects. This zany romp, replete with elements of Marx Brothers mayhem and Thin Man references, dishes up a laugh a minute with grand style and buckets-full of derring-do.
Helming this year’s production is Dallas-born Equity New York director Robert Bartley, creator of the successful, film and stage star-filled Broadway Backwards Aids Fundraiser. Bartley’s superb timing instincts create a fabulous flow of stage moments that allow Kurt Kleinmann’s tongue-in-cheek script to shine and every role to develop with clearly-defined arcs. A few slow scene entrances briefly interrupt the otherwise steady build to the dual mysteries’ unraveling but don’t interfere with the production’s energy or engaging quality.
“Who needs facts when you’ve got conjecture?” Harry Hunsacker
The cast functions beautifully as a unit, with each actor focused intently on creating a cohesive ensemble performance. Joining the stellar cast this year, Broadway and Off Broadway veteran star Susan Mansur plays delusional, dipsomaniac, aging radio “star” Miriam Andrews with bubbling abandon, as if channeling the comic essence of Carol Burnett or Elaine Stritch. The audience can’t wait to see what her every entrance cattily unleashes on the unwitting recipients waiting on stage. Mansur’s acting talents, coupled with Bartley’s directorial skill, energize the humor of this production.
Downstage left in audience’s full view sits a table covered with old-style sound effects devices. In another brilliant touch, director Bartley makes the auditory blend smoothly with the visual to heighten the comic melee. Pegasus Theatre veteran and regional playwright Ben Schroth plays Art, the nerdy sound effects man with a seedy past, with such studied deadpan commitment to his repeated garish interruptions he makes one’s fingers ache for a murder weapon. Greg Phillips takes over-acting to “electrified”, soaring heights as the sound engineer Walt bit by the showbiz bug. Leslie Patrick (a 14 year Pegasus veteran) and newcomer Bailey Lawrence give veracity to every 30’s era movie cliché imaginable about gorgeous blonde dames. Charissa Lee’s sensible “Girl Friday” Zoe fills out every inch of the other side of the genre screen femme equation. As an on-air singing advertisement voices, they bring well-orchestrated hints of early Andrews Sisters’ style harmony to the production.
Christopher Curtis’ harried, bombastic station manager Desmond balances Mansur’s grandstanding with explosive outbursts of his own, in constant conflict with station owner and “ironized coffee” magnate Laszlo. Played as a chic roué by Gordon Fox, who fairly oozes demented romantic ardor, Lazslo knows exactly how to tease a love interest along up to the moment of dramatic proposal on bended knee. Fox of the effetely arched eyebrow makes the most of this cheesy opportunity. Tenacious teeth-gnashing by Chad Cline as Harry Hunsacker’s “competition” Lt. Foster fuels their petty feuding to the audience’s glee, while Ben Bryant’s noble, ever-patient, Boy Scout-trustworthy Nigel picks up the pieces and solves the plot’s dilemmas without ever treading on Hunsacker’s self-perception as a master mystery-solver. Satisfying resolution guaranteed, every time, with a goblet of poison punch.
A sultry stunning addition to the program, torchy chanteuse Simone Gundy in glistening evening attire, warms up the crowd in front of the curtain and sets the 30’s scene with a jazzy set of classic tunes, ranging from “Johnny One Note” and “Funny Valentine” to a luscious styling of “Pennies form Heaven”. As refreshingly gorgeous as she and her voice are, it would be a worthy challenge to see Kleinmann find a way to integrate her into his plays’ plots in future productions.
A dazzling, multi-level, finely detailed set by Clare Floyd Devries, executed in elegant grey-scale tones, recreates the aura of an old-style radio station with vibrant style. Samantha Rodriguez’s costumes, with a perfectly ridiculous “radio antenna” chapeau for Mansur’s dizzy diva, carry forward the play’s themes and the Pegasus Theatre’s signature “black and white” visuals. At finale, everyone eagerly waits to see what version of Lady in the Red Dress emerges from the grey-scale environment. Aaron Patrick Turner’s sweeping blood-red gown on producer Barbara Weinberger is to die for, just like Lazslo’s “ironized coffee”.
Catch “The Frequency of Death” at Richardson’s Eisemann Center through January 22. The show tours at the MCL Grand in Lewisville January 26 though 29. Eisemann box office: 972-744-4650. www.pegasustheatre.org
Photos by Philip Allen
Review as run on content partner Theater Jones