CLUE ON STAGE: At the End of Its Rope, Revolver, Dagger, Candlestick, Wrench and Lead Pipe



So, as the expression goes in all murder mysteries, “Whodunnit?”

The answer: scenic designer Anna Louizos.

But I don’t mean “Whodunnit?” in the negative sense – as in “Who did the crime?” No, in the case of CLUE ON STAGE at the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania, Anna Louizos has dunnit — the finest job of everyone involved.

Those who know the famous board game can see the challenge: Anna, how do you make a ballroom, billiard room, cellar, conservatory, dining room, hall, kitchen, library, lounge and study on a summer stock budget? Yes, Louizos mostly relies on a unit set, but she’s had so many pieces glide and fly in that she has managed to cover all those rooms and has made each look distinctive. It’s definitely a Broadway-worthy set.

You’ve read enough reviews to know that when one starts with a rave for the set, the show itself can’t be much good. CLUE ON STAGE isn’t.

Let’s be fair, though. It’s based on the 1985 film that initially received lackluster reviews but has since become a beloved cult favorite. So if you loved the movie’s script, you’ll probably love the show – because Jonathan Lynn’s funniest lines are still here: “Life after death is as improbable as sex after marriage” … “Communism was just a red herring” … Da da da da da da! I am your singing telegram!” – followed by a gunshot that kills the telegraph deliverer. Those who like their theater to be familiar as comfort food will find about 85% of Lynn’s screenplay on stage. Eric Price and Hunter Foster have added and subtracted and have made a few topical references, too, even though we’re still in 1954.

Theatergoers who like to see films put on stage for GOOD REASON may be less entranced. Price and Foster haven’t changed much; Professor Plum is now a playwright rather than a professor of psychiatry and had been tarred by the House Un-American Activities tribunal.

What’s more, Foster has directed in a far more arch style than the one that John Landis employed in the film. He’s used (overused, really) the stock device of having all the characters gasp in unison when they hear something ominous … time and time again, far FAR more often than it happens in the film. There, the performers take the same type of careful mincing pussyfoot steps because they’re wary of what’s around the corner; here they do it far more often in hopes of getting laughs from the audience.

(They get chuckles instead.)

Film can also use multiple actors as corpses; here, after a character is murdered, a we’re-not-fooling-you dummy that’s vaguely made up to look like him or her substitutes. Not that Foster has asked for his show to be realistic, but enough is enough.

The film’s ace trump was that it had three different endings, which turned out to be a liability. Asking an audience to see a poorly reviewed film not once, not twice, but three times was much too much to ask; CLUE only grossed little more than a fifth of its budget. The cult began when home video offered all three endings. Under those circumstances, they were nice lagniappes.

To divulge how CLUE ON STAGE handles this would be unfair. Besides, a review of a mystery should have a little mystery about it, too. But there’s no mystery in the fact that this play really wants to be a musical. Michael Holland has composed or collected more music than you’d find in all of 1776. Whenever a melody comes in, it sounds as if it’s a cue for a character to start singing.

For the record, there WAS an off-Broadway musical of CLUE 20 years ago that lasted all of 29 performances in Greenwich Village and was much harder to take than this one. The cast wasn’t much good, either; of the eight actors in the cast, seven never made another off-Broadway appearance.

There’s far more talent in New Hope. Sally Struthers was the recipient of entrance applause, proving that many still remember her from ALL IN THE FAMILY. Struthers has a funny moment when she’s about to faint and expects that at least ONE of the four gentlemen will offer to catch her. When she realizes that no one will, she gives a to-hell-with-it gesture and regains her composure.

She has an odder assignment when one scene demands that she stick out her tongue and keep it out for many l-o-n-g seconds. The only actors who stick them out more frequently are in porno.

As Mrs. White, Erin Dilly is perfectly content – or has been commanded by Foster – to deliver Madeline Kahn’s performance in the film. She does it superbly. As the Colonel, Kevin Carolan cuts the mustard. Those who play the other suspects do the job nicely enough.

The actor who plays the butler has the most lines, appearances and responsibilities. Foster has the indefatigable Carson Elrod add far more comic brio than Tim Curry was asked to bring to the film. Elrod throws himself into the role — and onto the stage floor – without apparently worrying that he could break a bone, which truly could happen, given his zest for falling. He’s such an impressive ringmaster that he alone is almost worth the price of admission.

CLUE ON STAGE garnered a capacity audience last Saturday afternoon. Many theatergoers enjoyed themselves immensely while others sat there dutifully. (Let’s face it: that’s the fate of most shows.)

Keep in mind, though, that tickets to CLUE ON STAGE run as high as $75. The film is free on YouTube.