The most apt description of the new “Knockin’ ’Em Dead: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Murder Mystery” at Cabaret Oldtown is that it’s a work in progress. It will likely get smoother and more streamlined as cast members settle more comfortably into their sometimes improvisational roles.
This original show, co-written by Mike Roark (who also directs and stars) and Cabaret owner Christi Moore, is an inconsistent mash-up of rock music parodies and broad comic capers designed as an audience-participation murder mystery.
In other words, those watching the show get to vote by applause before the finale to choose who they think the killer is, and then the cast members will play out one of four musical endings according to that choice. By design, the killer can logically be any one of four people, so different nights can have different outcomes.
Opening night, it worked better in theory than in practice as the audience seemed a little hesitant to get involved – perhaps through some confusion about the means, motives and opportunities that all the suspects have. Part of the problem is that the broad comic characterizations sometimes overwhelmed singing clarity, making explanatory lyrics harder to understand.
The result was that there never quite was a genuine “aha” moment.
The mystery is set backstage at a third-rate theater owned by a one-time, one-note 1980s TV sitcom star who uses it as his personal fiefdom. He stars in all the shows and lords it over his employees, from his stage manager to other cast members to his long-suffering co-star and much-younger trophy wife.
Director-playwright Roark, a local theater veteran who has worked in countless shows from Music Theatre for Young People to Prairie Pines Dinner Theatre, plays Victor, the arrogant and self-centered theater owner whose almost operatically overdone death scene (it spills into the audience) in Act I sets the mystery ball in motion. In Act II, Roark reappears as the crusty detective – named Mike Mallet in obvious homage to Mike Hammer – who investigates the case.
Megan Parsley, who also choreographed the musical bits and snatches, plays Martha, Victor’s actress/wife who married him to get out of the chorus but who now resents that he treats her like an aging has-been – particularly around young ingenues in his cast. Parsley is sexy and slinky, playing Martha as a real man-eater. Her anthem is “I’m Sexy and I Know It,” and Parsley proves it.
Dylan Lewis, who has a powerful voice that seemed to be hiding under a comic bushel, plays Stanley, the frustrated stage manager who secretly wants to be an actor and who believes if egocentric Victor were out of the way, he’d get his shot at stardom.
Kaye Brownlee-France is pretty, ditsy ingenue Emily, who has to constantly fend off handsy Victor both onstage and backstage. Victor tries to compromise her because he knows a sordid secret about her past.
Victor also holds a secret over handsome young would-be leading man George, played by Craig Richardson, to keep him from trying to encroach on Victor’s spotlight.
Music passages from about 20 rock songs, selected and adapted by Moore, range from “Bohemian Rhapsody” (“Mama, just killed a man …) to ABBA’s “Money” to “I Hate Men” to “Poison,” which is a (wink-wink) clue about Victor’s demise.
Act II is a bit more successful than Act I because it has more music, with each character concocting a musical alibi under the gumshoe’s grilling. The voices are good (when the camping it up doesn’t get in the way) and the accompaniment by the Cabaret Oldtown Band under Rich Bruhn is solid. The show is spotty fun, but it could be so much more.