Phil Johnson (left) and David McBean in "The Savoyard Murders." Photo by Ken Jacques
It’s too bad people keep getting knocked off at Tiberius Spriggs’ party. It looks like a blast. Actually, with the arrival of a gun in its midst, the party turns into a blast.
This is the orchestrated chaos of Omri Schein’s “The Savoyard Murders,” staged by the Roustabouts Theatre Company and co-directed by Schein and Phil Johnson, who also stars as Spriggs, a mischievous theater critic and impassioned devotee of the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan.
Schein, himself a gifted comic actor in town, is also a longtime fan of the Queen of Mystery, Agatha Christie. No doubt that in part inspired his script for this world-premiere. In the handout program for “The Savoyard Murders,” Schein also cites the B-movies of Vincent Price as an influence.
There is indeed a mystery at the heart of this two-hour comedy, but it’s not to be taken very seriously. “The Savoyard Murders” rather is an opportunity to enjoy a troupe of game actors playing a murder game and milking every possible laugh from an audience that they can while doing so.
That this is attempted at Scripps Ranch Theatre’s awkward Legler Benbough space is both boon and bane. On the plus side, the tight environs heighten the claustrophobic energy of the little soiree Spriggs has thrown. On the negative, it’s occasionally hard to hear everyone onstage unless you’re seated smack dab in the middle of the theater.
Now – to the story.
Johnson’s dancing eyes as Spriggs telegraph right away that this party has an ulterior motive. His guests catch on pretty quickly too: timid milliner Ezra Dibble (Elliott Goretsky), vampy actress Rowena Rawlings (Taylor Henderson), an actor with a booming bass, Cyrus Schock (Durwood Murray), histrionic matron Desdemona Chatfield-Snarr (Wendy Waddell) and snooty director Balthazar Bellwood (Daren Scott). With the exception of the nervous Dibble, they’re all so wrapped up in their own egos to brace themselves for the worst.
Completing the ensemble and damned near walking away with the whole show is David McBean, portraying not only Spriggs’ manservant Grizzle, but a gaggle of murder victims whose tales are told in flashback. Their names – Peregrine Scattergood, Albert Mogg, Euphoria Barrick, Primrose Cabbage and Millicent Maggot – aren’t half as hilarious as McBean himself, who in a variety of wigs and crazy accents makes every cameo a memorable one.
The conceit of Schein’s script is that each of the murders is cleverly connected to one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas, posters for which are conveniently hung on the wall of Spriggs’ 1920s London flat. They include “The Sorcerer,” “Patience,” “Iolanthe,” “The Mikado” and “H.M.S. Pinafore.” I know I’m leaving one or two out, but unlike Spriggs and Bellwood, who claims he’s discovered a never-produced G&S work, I’m not a comic opera fan.
Don’t have to be to giggle at “The Savoyard Murders,” which in spite of being perhaps a half-hour longer and more complicated than it needs to be is full-on silly fun. “Co-starring” with this cast are the various wigs by Peter Herman, Jennifer Brawn Gittings’ period costumes and scenic design by Yi-Chien Lee that is as posh as is possible and is certainly functional.
Everyone emotes with carte blanche, which in this production is practically a prerequisite. Johnson, as the action’s master of ceremonies, is in his element.
To Schein’s credit, his mystery is populated with well-crafted red herrings, and the ending is a surprise.
If you’re depressed about the state of the world or about anything else, “The Savoyard Murders” is surely a show to escape into.
“The Savoyard Murders” runs through Sept. 30 at the Legler Benbough Theatre at Allied International University in Scripps Ranch.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.