BY STEPHEN DiLAURO | One of the tragedies of the Downtown theater scene is that some very good shows die on their feet. I can only hope that “Who Murdered Love?” by the artistic duo of Lissa Moira and Richard West, moves from Theater for the New City to a commercial venue, or gets extended right where it is.
This show is a remount of the original that was first staged a decade or so ago, proving its timeless appeal. The songs, the singing and dancing, the acting — all are excellent and more than worthy of the price of admission, several times over.
The show I saw last Saturday night played to a packed house. This makes me wonder if the general audiences Downtown are more aware, more attuned to quality entertainment, than those walking around Times Square with deep pockets and calling themselves producers.
Theater should be the domain of poets, not bourgeois dilettantes, and it certainly is here. Both Lissa Moira and Richard West list “poet” on their résumés. Moira provides slam-bang comic-satiric lyrics and in writing the book used rhyming dialogue to enhance the entertaining action. West composed the music. The musical accompaniment, by music director Peter Dizozza on solo piano, is a genuine pleasure.
I overheard one audience member say, “It’s like ‘Alice in Wonderland’ meets ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’” That’s a somewhat accurate assessment: There is certainly a down-the-rabbit-hole aspect to the delightful confection. However, the femme fatale bombshell heiress Honey Potts is very much a real-life character, as opposed to a cartoon. Alisa Ermolaev (a.k.a. Alisa Killz) is delightful in every way, from the captivating and bold expressiveness of her face and her overall presence to her lovely voice. Her performance sizzles, as she convinces the other characters to inhabit her dream with the aid of absinthe, referred to here as “the green fairy.”
The entire cast is to be congratulated for bringing this fun piece to life. Louisa Bradshaw is brilliant. She transforms herself entirely to portray the vampy Countess Analise, a role which she originated in the first production a decade or so ago.
John David West does an outstanding job as Sleepy Sam Speed, a send-up of the fictional detective in Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon.” Amy Catherine Welch is charming and lovely as Blossom, who paints Sleepy Sam Speed’s errant partner Everitt Greene, played by Chase Wolfe with verve and just the right spin on campiness to make the role work.
Rori Nogee is a firecracker as Gail Friday, the attentive and somewhat jealous secretary to Sam Speed (who becomes Sam Surreal in Honey Potts’s absinthe dream). Sage Buchalter is marvelous as she delivers again and again as the center that holds the chorus together.
William Broderick, who often works with director Moira, does a superb job as Ranton — a send-up of the French poet and critic Andre Breton, the anarchist architect of the Surrealist movement. His immediate foil in the show is Darcel DuCamp, another send-up from 20th-century art history — Marcel Duchamp, one of the prime figures of the Dada art movement founded by Tristan Tzara. Jef Canter gives a bravura performance as DuCamp and one wishes his part was bigger. He is simply excellent every second he’s on stage.
Last, but not least in any way, is the elusive and mystical Dada Love, who may or may not have been murdered, played by Ejyp Johnson. His energy and performance are riveting.
The entire cast joins in the chorus numbers.
The plot, such as it is, plays off the already-mentioned cultural highlights of the years between the 20th century’s two world wars: hard-boiled crime fiction, surrealism and Dadaism. It also has a somewhat satiric edge, which suggests, perhaps, an insider’s take on the Downtown poetry scene, a milieu in which the co-writer Richard West is a longtime stalwart. Lissa Moira’s direction is spot-on and the evening whisks past like a frothy cocktail. Moira is well-known as a play doctor to the script efforts of lesser talents. It’s great to see something with her imprint all over it and which has a first-rate script as a starting point.
“Who Murdered Love?” is a sexy, witty and energized show. It is a respite from the agitprop of identity politics, which seems to have overtaken many forms of art these days. Seeing it reminded me of something my late, great friend Bertrand Castelli told me about “Dames at Sea” and “Hair” — two famous shows in which he had an interest. He was a major investor in the former and he served as executive producer on the original production of the latter. He told me: “Keeping the cast together was essential to the life of [both those shows]. In the case of ‘Hair’ it was almost as much an element of success as the nudity.”
Calling all commercial producers. This show has legs. Man, does it ever.
“Who Murdered Love?” at Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave., through Sun., Feb. 19.
DiLauro is a playwright, poet and roving cultural correspondent for The Village Sun.