I am not a fan of the murder-mystery-comedy genre - but make the show a musical, and I'm not only interested, but eager to see it. Such is the case with Augustana College's Something's Afoot, a song-filled, murder-mystery romp reminiscent of an Agatha Christie story. Though not bad, the songs by James McDonald, David Vos, and Robert Gerlach, for the most part, aren't great, nor particularly memorable. But happily, the production as a whole is still amusing from beginning to satisfying-and-unexpected end.
Director Jeff Coussens' take on the material, with its book also co-written by the aforementioned songwriters, plays up the fun of its group of interesting, eccentric characters gathering at the estate of Lord Rancour (Don Wooten) for a weekend of oddly executed but typically humorous murders. Thankfully, the playwrights avoid the corniness often associated with the genre - save for one person describing a recently bludgeoned alcoholic as looking "a bit smashed" - and offer many reasons to smile, if not laugh out loud, throughout the play. These include a death by a poisonous, gas-spewing telephone, a seemingly sentient suit of armor, and a poison dart that, once it punctures the skin, gives the victim exactly five minutes to live, and each of these moments elicited applause and laughter during Friday's performance.
Choreographer Christina Myatt doesn't miss a step in incorporating humor into her simple yet effective numbers. I particularly enjoyed "Carry on," in which Something's Afoot's four female characters sing about staying strong in the face of danger, and Myatt accompanies the upbeat piece with a dance featuring tribal spears in place of canes. (The spears are plucked from the floor-to-ceiling, wood-panel walls, where they serve as decorations along with swords, shields, maces, and a suit of armor in scenic designer Andy Gutshall's breathtakingly impressive, two-story set.)
The cast proves up to the task of handling Coussens' and Myatt's buoyant treatment of the playful material, and portray their characters with gusto. Lord Rancor is served by three staff members: Sarah Baxter's saucy maid, Lettie, Jack Kilburg's flirty housekeeper Flint, and Luke Currie's icy, nearly Lurch-like butler Clive. They're joined by seven guests of varied dispositions and backgrounds. The first to arrive is Ellenelle Gilliam's young, bright-eyed Hope Langdon. She is soon followed by William Cahill's optimistic, Scottish Dr. Grayburn (complete with mutton chops); Jacob Weidner's lush dandy Nigel Rancour; Aubrey Waddick's uppity-because-she's-high-society Lady Grace Manley-Prowe; John D'Aversa's Colonel Gillweather, a retired military man with a "pip pip cheerio" British air; and Elyssa LeMay's smart, driven, and larger (and louder) than life Miss Tweed. Steven Mondloch's slightly daft Geoffrey, meanwhile, arrives later, after his rowing crew is capsized in a storm on the lake surrounding the island mansion. (Each character is dressed in splendid, personality-matching period attire by costume designer Ellen Dixon.)
There's nothing of "merit," in terms of a moral of the story or a point to be made, to Something's Afoot beyond its spoofy entertainment value, and the cast and crew of Augustana's production seem to understand that. They make the mash-up of music and murder a jolly good time and left me grinning from ear to ear throughout the performance, at least when I wasn't laughing heartily at LeMay's grandiose gestures and speech, Weidner's foppish dance steps, or D'Aversa's death. Even the hairstyles are delightful - particularly Waddick's two rows of pin curls that extend along the back of her neck from below her right ear to above her left ear. I loved this entertaining comedy, and wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to anyone who asks me if there are any good theatrical performances worth catching in the Quad Cities.
Something's Afoot runs at Augustana College's Potter Theatre in the Bergendoff Hall of Fine Arts (3701 Seventh Avenue, Rock Island) through May 11, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)794-7306 or visiting Augustana.edu.