"Clue"

Eleasha Gamble as Miss Scarlet (from left), Alex Mandell as Mr. Green, Kathy Fitzgerald as Mrs. Peacock, Donna English as Mrs. White, Michael Kostroff as Professor Plum, and John Treacy Egan as Colonel Mustard

In the world of live entertainment, there is no shortage of popular amusements inspired by such low-hanging fruit as motorsports (“Monster Jam”), pro-wrestling (“WWE Live Raw”) and children’s collectables (Mattel’s “American Girl Live” tour).

There are even musicals based on Hasbro and Parker Brothers board games, though “Monopoly” never got to pass go on its way to Broadway a few years back and “Clue,” which made its Off-Broadway debut in 1997, received nothing but dismal reviews and a run of 29 performances.

A new non-musical adaptation of the whodunit board game has been written by Sandy Rustin (whose credits include the above-mentioned Mattel extravaganza), though her rendition of “Clue” is so deeply grounded in the farce-filled 1985 film of the same name that its screenwriter, Jonathan Lynn, gets top billing. The play is currently premiering on the Cleveland Play House main stage and, if all goes well, it is scheduled to go on national tour in 2021.

All does go well, such as it is.

It’s 1954, during the height of McCarthyism, and six strangers have been invited to a secluded mansion in the dark of night where they are met by Wadsworth the butler (Mark Price), Yvette the maid (Elisabeth A. Yancey) and the cook (Mariah Burks). Each guest – the inane Colonel Mustard (John Treacy Egan), the tragic Mrs. White (Donna English), the flighty Mrs. Peacock (Kathy Fitzgerald), the accident-prone Mr. Green (Alex Mandell), the underqualified and overconfident Professor Plum (Michael Kostroff), and the sardonic Miss Scarlet (Eleasha Gamble) – is introduced to Mr. Boddy (Graham Stevens), whom Wadsworth reveals has been blackmailing them for engaging in un-American activities. Soon Mr. Boddy is found dead. So are the maid, the cook, a motorist whose car had broken down, the cop who found the car, and a singing telegram delivery girl. Everyone’s a suspect, but who is the murderer?

The board game asks players to find the murderer, the crime scene and the weapon used from the clues that surface during the game playing, and the musical stage adaptation asked the audience to vote on these things prior to the big reveal. But this play, like the film, acts out all the options in addition to Wadsworth’s madcap recap of the play’s proceedings.

The script is chockfull of deliciously groan-worthy one-liners and slapstick antics, and serves up delightfully melodramatic over-embellishments of classic murder mystery tropes. The performances by this ensemble of seasoned pros are hysterical and the production’s designers – Lee Savage (scenic), Jen Caprio (costume), Ryan O’Gara (lighting), J. Jared Janas (makeup/wigs) and Jeff Human (sound) – capture the period, create the prerequisite thunderstorm, and construct a mansion of epic proportions and secret chambers.

“Clue” is great fun. And yet, I can’t help but feel let down by a Tony Award-winning production company staging a play that mimics a cult film based on a popular board game. 

The Allen Theatre is no stranger to farce, particularly in the form of Ken Ludwig’s “Sherwood: The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery” and “A Comedy of Tenors.” But “Clue” is clearly made of lesser stuff, where the board game characters are less richly drawn, the simple plot unfolds as if driven by a random roll of the dice and, despite director Casey Hushion’s insistence that she does not want it to “ever feel like we’re trying to put the film on stage,” that is exactly what this production feels like.

Iconic moments in the film are replicated, hidden Easter eggs include a reference to film actor Madeline Kahn’s Mrs. White, and it is often impossible not to hear the voices of other prominent film actors in the delivery of this play’s dialogue, which was originally written for them. Production bells and whistles, including the flying in and immediate flying out of scenery, seem built to keep pace with the play’s cinematic counterpart.

A page in the “Clue” playbill promotes the next CPH production, Sophocles’ “Antigone,” as adopted by the award-winning Emily Mann. This is reassuring. But now I can’t help wonder whether “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” “Evil Dead” or “Debbie Does Dallas: The Musical” are on tap for next season.

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3 or visit cjn.org/Abelman. 2019 Ohio SPJ best critic.

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Letters, commentaries and opinions appearing in the Cleveland Jewish News do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Cleveland Jewish Publication Company, its board, officers or staff.

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