Mystery, Mayhem and Music

By Barney Quick

Nashville’s Coachlight Theater offers the kind of theater experience that works on any number of levels. It’s designed that way. The plots of its productions are stories-within-stories, all of them tongue-in-cheek yet done with the utmost professionalism.

Mystery, Mayhem and Music, as witnessed by this reporter in a mid-July performance, is a perfect example of this. The theater’s artistic director, Doug May, who conceives of these multilayered exercises in spoof and song, begins the performance with a brief explanation of the levels of action the audience will see. Then the lights go up on a 1947 radio studio. The most immediate level of the plot follows the personal and professional relationships between the pinstripe-suited Walter Willows (played by Matthew Rhodes), host of the variety show Walter Willows’ Wonderful World, a vocal group called The Singing Songbirds, and a sound effects man (Willie Wycliffe, played by Doug Leeper) who is ensconced in a corner with his arsenal of emulations for thunder, creaking doors, and other phenomena.

Rhodes plays Willows in such a way that he seems to be earnestly doling out the corn, with his overwrought introductions of the singers and his straight-faced live commercials for sponsors such as Ollie’s Oil. However, as the play progresses, Willows is seen to be a bit jaded around the edges, as well as particularly fond of one of the Songbirds, Ruth (played by Marsha Placke).

The Singing Songbirds are a trio of fading stars who haughtily cling to their former glory and fume in various turf battles over such things as top billing and favor with Willows. The audience has a lot of fun watching the smirks, frowns, and looks of feigned boredom of the various Songbirds seated behind whoever is at the mike taking a solo.

The solos are a joy from the standpoint of the cast members’ considerable talents. Marsha Placke as Ruth packs “The Man I Love” full of emotion and dynamic variety. Whitney Thetford as Etta turns in memorable renditions of “Embraceable You” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” on which she puts a stylistic spin that is clearly of her own devising. The entire group, including Janet Ransdell as Mildred and Jolie Mullin as Desda, offers up seamless harmonies on “Sentimental Journey,” “Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy” and “I’ll Be With You in Apple Blossom Time.” Rhodes as Willows delivers a snappy interpretation of “Cheek to Cheek.”

The sound effects man’s main function is to provide the atmospherics during a whodunnit-serial portion of Willows’ program called Mystery Manor. Willows himself provides some great mock-Gothic aural whimsy as a butler who follows up every announcement of a guest arriving or dinner being served with an unearthly gurgle.

At this point, the interplay between the plot levels gets really fun. While there is a seeming murder in need of resolving in the radio serial, there is a parallel situation brewing among the cast of Willows’ Wonderful World. Desmond, an offstage singing partner of the ladies, is missing and suspicions grow among the group as to what has happened and who is responsible. The audience is invited to cast a ballot in the lobby during intermission for the character most likely to have brought Desmond to a foul end. The second half of the play unfolds according to the majority’s fingering of the culprit. Alas, in both Mystery Manor and Mystery, Mayhem and Music, the real explanation for the seeming misdeed turns out to be happily benign.

Doug Leeper as Willie Wycliffe gets a chance to come out from behind his sound-effects corner and show off some hat-and-cane hoofing, singing “Steppin’ Out” solo and “You’re the Top” in a duet with Thetford as Etta. Both character and actor clearly relish being able to surprise the audience with this moment in the spotlight.

Another delightful touch of silliness in this show is the radio station’s studio orchestra, which consists of a few puppet silhouettes behind a sheet-covered window, banging and blowing on toy instruments. Actual orchestra recordings are piped in. Generally the orchestra is called to duty when the pace of Willows’ show falters due to some foible among his barely organized cast. He and the Songbirds scramble around in classic slapstick fashion while the band plays on with toy-like precision.

There are several opportunities for audience interaction during the course of the show. One should be prepared to be a good sport when attending Mystery, Mayhem and Music or any Coachlight Musical. The thin line between cast and audience is the topmost level of the story-within-story structure that May has crafted for these productions.

This carries over to the aftermath of the show, when cast members greet the audience emerging from the theater into the plaza of Coachlight Square. This postlude of mirthful conversation reinforces the sheer fun of the whole experience.

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