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LIGHTNING REVIEW: Talented cast overcomes script to deliver big fun

Scott Treadway, Maria Buchanan, Dane Whitlock and Marcy McGuigan star in Clue the Musical at Flat Rock Playhouse. [PHOTO BY NICK GILLESPIE/Blue Bend Photography] Scott Treadway, Maria Buchanan, Dane Whitlock and Marcy McGuigan star in Clue the Musical at Flat Rock Playhouse. [PHOTO BY NICK GILLESPIE/Blue Bend Photography]

Presented with the proposition that a board game can serve as the foundation of a musical theater production, you might wonder what’s next — a movie exploring the inner motivation of an emoji? It’s probably best to dispense with the least attractive aspects of this season’s inaugural Flat Rock Playhouse Mainstage offering of Clue: The Musical —but only if you promise to keep reading.

Developed by a British law clerk to pass long hours in a bomb shelter during World War II German bombing raids, Clue the board game was designed as a distraction. So it’s unfair to expect a musical production based on the game to engage an audience with any depth. The premise is paper-thin and rests on precious little plot. Characters are uncomplicated. There is the gimmick of having the audience choose the perpetrator, the location and the weapon at the beginning. Then there is the tedious process of announcing clues through the next two hours to engage audience members as junior detectives. But if this is your idea of a good time, please stay home, retrieve your old Parker Brothers edition of the game out of the attic and reduce your carbon footprint. (OK, here’s where you keep your promise to read on.)

For all the shortcomings of Clue: The Musical on an intellectual level, the Playhouse production was solid fun with a capital “T” for “Talent.” The Vagabond mojo is strong with this one as all but one newcomer are familiar faces on the Playhouse stage. As in the board game, there are six suspects — Professor Plum played by Scott Treadway, Preston Dyar as Mrs. White, Marcy McGuigan as Mrs. Peacock, Ryah Nixon as Miss Scarlet, Colonel Mustard played by Michael MacCauley, and newcomer Jay McGill as Mr. Green. Mr. Boddy, played by Dane Whitlock, is the murder victim/master of ceremonies, and Maria Buchanan plays the Detective. The Detective is not found in the two-dimensional version of the game, but she helps keep the flow going by interacting frenetically (and sometimes maniacally) with each of the suspects.

This cast could make an anatomy textbook entertaining, especially when they must have been given the instruction by director Lisa Bryant, “Be as over the top as you can be. There are no subtleties here.” Treadway as Plum was wonderfully smarmy, vacillating between foppish creepiness and creepy foppishness. McGuigan could not be contained as Mrs. Peacock with her singing and dancing and facial expressions all set on “maximum manipulation.” Michael MacCauley’s Colonel Mustard was dressed for safari but was putty in Peacock’s hands.

Ryah Nixon was bursting out all over as the voluptuous Miss Scarlet, demanding with the purse of her red lips to be acknowledged as the most desirable of all. Jay McGill, the Vagabond rookie, confidently filled his place in the ensemble as Mr. Green. He had an enormous swagger and was all sharp corners and hard edges, and he and Nixon combined for one of the most powerful duets of the evening. As he often does, Preston Dyar, in drag as Mrs. White, vibrated with physicality. In more than one scene his character’s rage could scarcely be contained in her bugging eyes and stiff-legged gait. A character in drag can be dreadful, but Dyar was entirely convincing as a potentially homicidal British maid.

It was evident that Dane Whitlock was thrilled to be back in his element on stage as Mr. Boddy after being absent from the boards for too long. By day Dane does the yeoman’s work of marketing and development for the Playhouse, but his hiatus from acting didn’t keep him from being smooth in his movement and expressive in his words to keep the scenes moving. Last there was Maria Buchanan, who plays the detective questioning each of the suspects in her search for the truth. Her character had the strange quirk of devolving quickly from hard-nosed cop to a thumb sucking, baby-talking toddler. Meant to be funny, it’s annoying at first until, with incredible vocal elasticity, Buchanan leads us to realize that the detective is truly on the verge of cracking up. In one of the better scenes in the show, Buchanan spars with Professor Plum exchanging literary quotes.

The set that greets the audience upon entering the venue is a spare, colorful, three-dimensional suggestion of a game board. It was a nice change to have the band visible on the left of the stage allowing a clear view of the musicians as they did their usual fine job turning on a quarter note from a waltz to a conga line to the Pink Panther theme and back again. An invisible moving walkway brought characters on and off stage and added an interesting element of motion. The only problem with the staging was again peculiar to the play itself and not the fault of the crew at the Playhouse. A game board only offers so much leeway. The staging, which in the hands of the Playhouse wizards is usually so multi-dimensional, was limited by too many straight edges. Likewise the costuming: the characters were decked out in wonderful Crayola colors, but, with no costume changes, the talents of Playhouse costume designer Ashli Crump were not allowed full flower.

The choreography of the show was excellent. It had plenty of humor and the cast didn’t appear to miss a step. While there were moments of brilliance in the vocal performances,
the music of the play did not give the cast enough to work with. With only a couple of exceptions, regular Playhouse audience members recognized that the voices on stage surpassed the demands of the songs they were given to sing.

When Bryant, the play's director and Playhouse Artistic Director, stood up front to welcome the audience to the show, she implored us to let go of the worries of the outside world and enjoy the silliness on stage. It was a reasonable request. Go to the play to be entertained. Go to the play to celebrate the opening of the 2018 Mainstage season. Go to enjoy the talent of actors (now including Jay McGill) who never disappoint.