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“Murder at Cafe Noir” a fun, at times flawed parody of 1940s mystery theater

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murder at cafe noir  1With “Murder at Cafe Noir,” the Act Normal theater troupe traverses the murder-mystery genre many others have traveled before, but to their credit, they do it rather well.

The show opens with Rick Archer, no, not THAT cartoon Archer, speaking to the audience about his role in investigating the murder of one Andre Toreau, owner of the famed Cafe Noir.

The Cafe Noir can be best described as a seedy, yet well-established night club where the patrons’ secrets are stored, even if they’re not all quite true.

Toward the beginning, Ms. Toreau wanders out into the audience to describe some of the alleged misdeeds some of the “regulars” have committed. It’s a fun way to engage the audience by making them feel like they’re all characters, as well, who could be called upon at any given moment in the show.

This form of audience interaction continues as a prop central to the story is left on a table and after the first course, the actors wander through the crowd giving mini improv performances for individual tables, leaving faux business cards and dishing gossip about the other characters.

The story, by the way, involves Mr. Archer’s investigation into who killed Toreau as well as two other souls, Thursby and VanGilder, both played by Tim Stoddard, who also plays deputy investigator Rigfield toward the end. Dylan Storm played the three different characters for the first week’s shows, as well.

Joining Stevens and Stoddard were Melanie Hauer as the seductive siren Sheila Wonderly, pronounced “Wonder-LAY” for added effect, Dan Mitchell as the con artist/lawyer Simon Gutterman, Dave Hagins plays Archer,  Tony Magnone plays the wonderfully-accented mobster Anthony Cairo and Pam Stoddard stars as the exotic Marie Larue, who we discover is a practicing  Vodouisant.

Each of these characters have a reason to want to see Toreau dead, although I can’t quite remember what they are. Nevertheless, each person could be his killer and part of the fun is trying to deduce who did it before Archer discovers it at the end.

The most entertaining part of the show is the dance scene between Thursby and Archer, which both Hagins and Stoddard expand upon for maximum comedic effect.

Picture if you will a man who has just been shot in the chest dancing to a catchy song with another man who’s trying to get him to spill the beans about who shot him. It’s that level of absurdity that makes this scene a joy to watch. It’s not realistic, but that’s kind of the point, and why it makes for excellent parody.

As far as props go, I thoroughly enjoyed reading the rap sheets on each of the characters, which one of the actors drops off on each table between acts for people to read. It’s a nice interactive element and one I saw people looking at for the rest of the show as they were trying to compare what they were reading to what they were seeing on stage. In a way it’s a pretty simple tool but one that pays big dividends for engaging the audience.

Without spoiling the ending, the person who I thought was the killer turned out to be correct. I suspected it toward the start and only due to a logical, “this is the most likely scenario in these types of cases,” type way.

The actors, as I said above, really made this show a success. Each one of them made their distinct, horribly flawed characters come to life with ease. I particularly enjoyed the times they broke the fourth wall to comment on how VanGilder’s dead body looked suspiciously like Thursly’s. I also found it clever in the way the actors hinted that the food would be coming out soon.

The only real issue I had was the noticeable lack of chemistry between Wonderly and Archer. Both times they kissed it just came across as more awkward than steamy.

Looking back at my reviews I’ve done over the years, this seems to be a common complaint, which may just show how hard it is to fake romantic chemistry on stage.

Nevertheless, the success of the show did not hinge on the perceived chemistry between these two characters. Instead it felt like a tacked on love story that the writers felt needed to be in there for some reason. I honestly think it would have been just as memorable without it.

The musical numbers had a few issues as well. The singing was at times solid, at times off-key and messy. The group singing came off much better than the solo voices, which again, goes back to how hard it is to sing on stage by yourself while commanding the presence of the audience.

If anything it makes you appreciate those who do it extremely well even more because of how difficult it really is. Having been in a few musicals myself, I can say with 100 percent certainty that singing on your own was the hardest things to do. I’ve seen people do it really well, and I’ve seen others do it awfully, but it’s a challenge for everyone who dare try it.

The dinner was decent for the most part. My steak was a little over-cooked but I still found it tasty. The salad was pretty plain and the dessert looked delicious.

Going forward, I fear that Act Normal might run out of ways to tell the same types of stories. I get that they keep doing murder mystery shows because people love them. However, there will reach a point where people who have been to three or four of them may start to yearn for something a bit different.

While I wouldn’t say they’ve reached that yet, and indeed they have done a few different non-murder mystery shows, I hope in the future that they continue to mix in different types of shows.

On the plus side, the consistency sets a standard of what people can expect. A bar of excellence if you will.

By setting that bar where it’s at now, they’ve made their work cut out for them going forward. The biggest challenge in that regard has to be finding new talent to rely on without making it seem as if you’ve seen the same old actors playing the same old characters again and again.

To be clear, that’s not what I’m saying is happening with Act Normal, but it’s something that they may want to keep in mind has the potential of happening in the future.

The Act Normal performance of “Murder at Cafe Noir,” struck me as a fun and entertaining parody. I knew what I was going to get, and it came across as advertised. That’s not always an easy thing to achieve.

If you’d like to see “Murder at Cafe Noir,” there’s one more showing on June 27 at 7 p.m. Call 781-9839 to make reservations.

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