- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 6, 2006

1.Drinks taste better when served in a Mason jar.

2. Why buy fancy dental floss when a piece of hay will do just fine?

3. It’s high time there was a calico revival.

If you agree with all of the above, “A Murder, a Mystery & a Marriage” is the show for you.

Round House Theatre has turned high-toned Bethesda into a barn dance for its last show of the season, a rollicking, family-oriented musical that seems as easy as a gentle burp after a big Sunday dinner.

This is the kind of entertainment you normally would see in Branson, Mo., or Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. — old-timey and corny as all get out, yet as tuneful as a duet between Roy Clark and the late Buck Owens. No citified palaver here — director-writer Aaron Posner (who brought such elegance and wit to Folger Theater this season) presents the pickin’ and grinnin’ brightness of a country jamboree with high spirits and self-deprecating humor that put you in mind of a backwoods edition of “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.” When a man stabbed in the back rises up from the murder scene to sing a sprightly chorus of the song “Who Woulda Thought It?” you know you’re not in Sondheim territory.

Another inspiration is another classic TV show, “Hee-Haw,” from which Mr. Posner clearly borrowed the blend of rural jokes, country music and hayseed aesthetics.

He is not alone. Scenic designer Tony Cisek looks not to the Muses, but to the Grand Ole Opry for his set, a colorful conglomeration of weather-beaten wood, lanterns and old-timey signage. Kate Turner-Walker’s costumes are as bright as flower-seed packets and feature loads of petticoats and bloomers that are used to great effect in Karma Camp’s Dixie-stomping choreography.

Be warned, however. If your idea of purgatory is listening to a country station or traveling anywhere south of Tysons Corner, “A Murder, a Mystery” will be two hours of torture.

For those who welcome a walk on the hillbilly side from time to time, the musical offers a cornucopia of corn-fed pleasures. Based on a newly discovered Mark Twain short story, “A Murder, a Mystery” is melodrama through and through, filled with stock characters and situations.

The show centers on the Gray family of Deer Lick, Mo., presided over by John (Anthony Lawton), a hog farmer so beleaguered that even the horses tell him “neigh.” The time is 1876, and John only wants the best for his kin, pugnaciously assertive wife Sally (Sherri L. Edelen) and equally forward daughter Mary (Erin Weaver).

It’s time young Mary got hitched, and since childhood she’s had a hankering for timid general store clerk Hugh Gregory (Ben Dibble), and vice versa. Marriage seems as likely as finding a spittoon in a saloon, but then Mary’s evil uncle David (Thomas Adrian Simpson) makes things come a cropper by putting in his will that his niece will inherit his fortune on one condition: that she marry anyone but Hugh.

The jeopardized nuptials create an opportunity for a fancy-pants, French-speaking mysterious Stranger (Scott Greer) to swoop into town and woo Mary with an oily determination that’s enough to put you off your feed. The Stranger will stop at nothing in his pursuit of Mary, even if it means Hugh will wear a hangman’s noose instead of a wedding tie.

You’ve seen the plot and characters endless times before, but the cast makes no bones about the show’s emphasis on the obvious. In fact, the actors hurl themselves into the roles as if performing Shakespeare at a tractor pull. Miss Edelen sings up a storm as the no-nonsense Sally, and Miss Weaver, a newcomer to the area, matches her in all-get-out spunk as daughter Mary.

Dan Manning is a nimbly easygoing presence as Clem (a play on Twain’s real name, Samuel Clemens), and Mr. Lawton is both a hoot and a holler as the bumbling but devoted John Gray. Another new face, Mr. Greer, combines operatic brio with flim-flam charm and an Inspector Clouseau-ish accent as the Stranger in a performance so villainous it elicits hisses from the audience.

James Sugg’s score is folksy and a toe-tapper even if your music tastes run more toward Beyonce and Kanye than Shania and Martina. Mr. Posner tempers the laid-back bluegrass vibe of the music with lyrics that poke fun at the very conventions and stereotypes the musical celebrates. The result is a show that is homegrown and highly polished fun.

***

WHAT: “A Murder, a Mystery & a Marriage: A Mark Twain Musical Melodrama.” Book and lyrics by Aaron Posner, music by James Sugg

WHERE: Round House Theatre Bethesda, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays, 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through June 25.

TICKETS: $25 to $50

PHONE: 240/644-1100

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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