Killin’ It at Festival Rep

By Mindy Leaf

It’s been a few years since I last attended a show by Florida Atlantic University’s Department of Theatre and Dance. I do recall their students being quite good and I especially enjoyed how they’d often produce rarely staged gems. So I was nostalgically delighted to discover that after the long pandemic absence nothing has changed – if anything they are better than ever! The plays are still staged at their main Boca campus in the lovely Marleen Forkas Studio One Theatre with free garage parking and an impressive art gallery that’s open to the public (at least it was during Saturday’s matinee) and entices you to enter as you make your way down the long, white art-laden hall to the theater’s entrance. 

“As It Was: the show that never happened” is a top notch, juried contemporary art exhibit featuring an impressive mix of paintings and sculptures and lots in-between by 14 FAU alumni, including two curators. I offer my heartfelt gratitude for all the easy-to-read descriptive labels, exactly where they should be (not far off to the side but right alongside the works themselves!) The exhibit further serves to confirm that this university takes all their arts programming seriously. 

And when it came to their latest theatrical production, I literally had to double check the (thank you for this) PAPER program to confirm that the show was entirely acted by MFA, BFA, and graduate theater students. Even the music directors (Anthony Blatter and Joel Rodriguez) and choreographer (Shayna Gilberg) are FAU MFA graduate students. Their bios show serious acting experience as well (one’s even an equity member), and all I can say is their talent rivals anything you’d see in our better local theaters and Off Broadway. Especially impressive as they chose a particularly difficult (I feel) dialogue-heavy show laden with lightning-quick repartee, some flashy song-and-dance numbers and plenty of physical action. Director Lee Soroko, who also served as fight director, did a phenomenal job keeping the pace.

At a time when many companies try to save money by using sparse sets and rely heavily on projections, Festival Repertory Theatre 2023’s inaugural show of their summer season rivals NYC’s celebrated Mint Theater Company in the elaborate elegance and authenticity of its earlier century estate set design replete with period props and furnishings by scenic designer April Soroko and Dawn Shamburger’s impressive costumes (all crafted by FAU students!). The set is simply a wonder to behold. I mention The Mint because, like FAU’s “Musical Comedy Murders,” many of their rediscovered revivals feature historic, fast-talking farces surrounded by antique furnishings so, in that sense, the productions are similar. 

Providing live practice for hauling dead bodies, director Lee Soroko, center, is held aloft
by the super-talented cast of THE MUSICAL COMEDY MURDERS OF 1940, FAU
Festival Rep’s hilarious inaugural show, playing now through July1. Photos by Morgan
Sophia Photography.

But FAU’s theatre department choice of THE MUSICAL COMEDY MURDERS OF 1940 by John Bishop with music by Jeremy Landig boasts a far larger cast than typical Mint shows and wildly fast comedic action and wit. The play’s 1987 Circle Rep/Broadway run was described by The New York Times as a cross between “Irma Vep” and “It’s Only a Play” with a soupcon of “Noises Off.” (How lucky are we in South Florida to have been treated, just last summer, to a fabulous production of “The Mystery of Irma Vep” by Island City Stage!). And now we get to experience yet another madcap, cult comedy classic that’s destined to be the talk of the town for years to come.

There’s so much that’s great and campy fun about this show – retro music interludes and decor, clever references and jabs at the Golden Age of Hollywood and slasher movies, classic casting and creative issues that still resonate today … all of which underlie hilarious, crazy-paced action and sharp dialog. But perhaps what makes the show extra special is that you never know what you’ll see next … and absolutely nothing and nobody is what you expect. Perhaps starting with the fact that despite a great musical introduction and powerful musical interludes of the era (and even radio announcements) this is NOT a musical comedy but rather opens with the premise that it’s a casting call FOR a musical comedy. During auditions we do enjoy several original musical numbers performed by “aspiring actors,” particularly adorable blonde dancer Nikki Crandall, starring Allie Gladstone for whom I forecast much future success. 

But even the stabbings of the notorious “Stage Door Slasher” are executed with more humor than finesse, as in the opening scene when a black-robed and hooded knife-wielding villain easily dispatches the maid, Helsa Wenzel (Equity actor and MFA grad Cait Siobhan Kiley), yet has a hell of a time hiding her behind the drapes, finally dragging the body into a broom closet. A dead Helsa is moved about in several scenes. Still no one but the killer knows she’s gone as her heavily German accented and hidden-but-obvious Nazi-sympathizing doppelganger carries on her kitchen duties with none the wiser. 

We also soon learn the frightening fact that two years ago, the creative team gathered here had all helmed a Broadway flop in which three chorus girls were knifed to death.  The crime was never solved. Stand-up comic Eddie McCuen (Zach Marullo) – who’s only there because of his agent’s insistence that he try out for everything and whose ongoing, groan-inducing one-liners amuse no one (except, maybe the audience) – is instantly spooked and ready to leave despite the weather. Having been charmed by dancer Nikki, he urges her to join him but she refuses, not willing to lose the chance of being part of a new hit show. 

Giving new meaning to “The show must go on.” In their roles as lyricist Bernice and
composer Roger, Caitlin Foster and Anthony Blatter utilize the horrors of blizzard
lockdown in an elegant but creepy Westchester estate as inspiration for new musical

We eventually learn there’s a lot more at stake than starry-eyed dreams to her decision as she, and half of the invitees – from undercover Sergeant Michael Kelly (Joel Rodriguez) to their scheming “angel,” lady-of-the-house Elsa Von Grossenkneuten (Ana Calise) for whom it’s all a delightful game despite the body-count pileup – are not who they appear to be. The musical tryout’s director Ken De La Maize (Mitchell Worrell-Olson) may sing Elsa’s praises as the “most generous of art patrons who last year backed 12 shows in the Great White Way,” but their opening scene together implies a shared undercover purpose. And so we begin to wonder….

The house itself is a major character in the play where picking up a desk pen invariably opens a revolving bookcase which leads to a hidden passage – just one of many secret mazes that lie beyond the walls. Yes, this play abounds with delightful, classic murder-mystery cliches. But you’ll be trembling from laughter, not fear!  

Every cast member perfectly inhabits the role of a unique and memorable character. Like helpful, heavily brogue-accented Patrick O’Reilly’s (Kyle Smith) frequent request for a “shivel” (meaning shovel) to help dig out the cars of late arrivals, and later for more sinister use. 

Producer Marjorie Baverstock (Shayna Gilberg) sits down to watch the auditioners perform and when they find her silently slumped over, it takes some time for the participants to realize this is more than an unflattering response. Last to arrive, but high on the scale of impact, is the musical team of composer Roger Hopewell (Anthony Blatter) and lyricist Bernice Roth (Caitlin Foster). Roger is rightly terrified of everything and everyone and just wants out, though he does serve as Bernice’s pick-up man each time she lands on the floor in a dead faint. Still Bernice perseveres as a creative, using the grisly incidents as fodder for original songs. We observe her scribbling away at her lyrics when not passing out (rather often) at the sight of a newly knifed corpse.  

Can fear of death ignite romance? Zack Marullo and Allie Gladstone enjoy a passionate
kiss in John Bishop’s zany farce, THE MUSICAL COMEDY MURDERS OF 1940.
Now playing at FAU’s Marleen Forkas Studio One Theatre.

But wait! Where did a live second Helsa the maid come from, with an even heavier German accent and nastier attitude? Is she really a Nazi spy? And now there seems to be more than one murderer on the loose in Elsa’s estate. Will everyone die? Who will be saved? Who’s the true hero? Will an oddly matched comic and dancer finally find true love? 

Get your tickets now to Festival Rep’s inaugural summer performance of John Bishop’s THE MUSICAL COMEDY MURDERS OF 1940 for all the answers and non-stop entertainment that will keep both your intellect and your funny bone actively engaged. Playing through July 1st at the Marleen Forkas Studio One Theatre at FAU’s main campus, 777 Glades Road, Boca Raton 33431. Individual tickets and package discounts are at or by calling 561-297-6124. To find out more about Festival Rep’s three-show season, which includes July productions of “Big Band Hits from the Golden Age” and “A Chorus Line,” visit

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1 comment

  1. Thank you for this review of our programs and for helping to put the word out about FAU’s art programing on the Boca Raton campus! The FAU Theaters and the FAU Galleries are proud of serving the community and we are so grateful when we hear that our efforts are appreciated. People do not always know that we are opened to the general public and strive to welcome them. Visit us again soon; the Galleries has a new show opening up in early July! 🙂

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