Whodunnits are a rare breed in the world of theatre these days.
There was a time when murder mysteries were all the rage at local playhouses, but with the advent of technology that puts information at your fingertips, keeping the mystery a secret became harder and harder, and the convention of a whodunnit was less and less appealing to an audience.
Then came the delightful comedy Shear Madness which took the concept of a whodunnit and turned it on its ear by putting the outcome in the hands of the audience.
Mostly scripted, the show throws away the book in the second act and allows the audience to decide who the murderer is and then, through some excellent improvisation, the actors would re-write the ending of the show on the fly to confirm the audience suspicion as correct.
This concept allows for a different outcome at every performance, and even makes it worth going back to see the show more than once, because the results will never be the same.
It is in this style that Raw Street Productions is presenting Knock Em Dead as part of the 2019 Philly Fringe Festival.
The scene is the green room of a dive-y comedy club. The premise is that the final five novelty acts are returning for the grand finale of the club’s talent search, with the winner receiving $1,000.
However, things go haywire just before the curtain goes up on the final round of the contest, as the lights go out briefly, and when they return the club owner is found murdered.
A detective, who is working undercover as a performer who accidentally showed up a day early for his act, indicates that the building is flooded with detectives and that the only people who could have pulled off this daring murder are the ones who were waiting in the Green Room.
After this setup, the detective employs the help of the audience to determine who the murderer was, and why.
And while the artists portray their characters really well and were especially hilarious during the interactive portion of the performance, with some side-splitting responses to the questions being posed by the audience, the script in the first act needs some help.
To be fair, this review is based on a preview performance, one in which the stage manager Robin Pfender filled in for an under the weather actor (and did so superbly considering the challenges of the character of Lotta Verboten, who basically breaks out into song at any moment), so it’s possible that changes have been made in time for the run, but the setup tended to drag and many of the jokes did not land, making the action seem awkward and uncomfortable.
Still, despite the challenges of dealing with a script written by Will Roberson and Tom Oldendick that wasn’t particularly audience-friendly, the actors were able to guide the audience through that murkiness to get to the good stuff – Act II.
It’s at this point, the actors’ talents truly shined. Mingling with the crowd. Improvising wildly and still staying true to their character and piecing together a completely feasible reason for both innocence and guilt for each character.
Gianna Lozzi Wolf was a standout as Roxie Barn, an Italian stand-up comic without a filter. She was the perfect South Philly stereotype with the attitude to match. She was unafraid to push the envelope to both raise the stakes for her fellow actors and swing for the fences to illicit laughter from the audience.
Her fearless approach is what makes great comedy, and while the others also seemed to have this gene, hers appeared to mutate and make its presence felt with frequency.
Additionally, C.J. Heston was delightfully over-the-top as the flamboyant Ian Wayne, master of the lip-synching dog Fifi. His energy never waned, not from the moment he ran onto the set in his plastic rain gear, to losing his shorn pants during the blackout, to describing his weird, but comical fetish, to being unmasked as the murderer (on this night, remember, it’s a different murderer every night).
It was a completely inspired performance.
Jeffrey Barg also stood out as The Great Somnambulo, a potentially fraudulent hypnotist (which is different than a mind-reader, as he expertly explained during one improvisational rant in the interrogation phase of the production). The shaky first-act script really made him out to be the prime suspect, but the audience went with Heston’s Wayne, which was an interestingly pleasant surprise, as choosing the hypnotist (who had the most incriminating evidence against him), would have been, in a gambler’s parlance, chalk.
Gracie Lyn Hudson (Bamby Lynn) and Nazeer L. Harper (Lou Dumbello) did nice work as the bubble-headed baton twirler and the Club’s M.C. respectively, but I wish the script allowed more of a back story for both characters. There were a few easily identifiable things that made them suspects, but nothing that really made you think that either were going to be an audience choice.
Jimmy Guckin played the detective (Hal Brown), who starts off as a not-too-good ventriloquist before revealing himself to have been undercover, staking out the Club for some nefarious activities that we never quite learn.
It’s Guckin’s responsibility to be the moderator – to be the one who gets the audience going on the interrogation, and to keep the whole thing organized and moving forward. It’s a daunting task for sure. One that hopefully he manages better as the show goes on. The audience was having fun with the interrogating and he cut it short to keep the show moving, but this was the most enjoyable part of the show, so letting this part breathe would only be a benefit to the overall production.
Freddie Lozzi directed Knock em Dead and even makes a very brief cameo. You can tell he has an eye for staging, as the stage at Connie’s Ric Rac, where the show is playing, never seemed cramped, even though it’s quite small.
He was able to facilitate actors’ entrances and exits well to keep the action moving, and he obviously gave his actors freedom in Act II, bringing hilarious results.
Lozzi, who is the co-founder of Raw Street, should really consider upgrading the script in Act I, potentially creating even more clues for the audience to latch onto prior to questioning the suspects.
Yet, despite the script’s shortcomings, the actors in this show definitely work their butts off for your enjoyment, and for that and a truly fun second act, I recommend that you check them out before Philly Fringe is a thing of the past.
Knock Em Dead is playing through Sept. 21 at Connie’s Ric Rac, 1132 S. 9th Street, Philadelphia, Pa. Tickets are $20. For more info visit https://fringearts.com/event/knock-em-dead/