The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 at Theatre Palisades and Jelly’s Last Jam at the Pasadena Playhouse

Rehearsals begin, but will the new musical ever get funded or the cast survive the night during The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 at Theatre Palisades? (L-R: Steven G. Frankenfield, Richard R. Rosales, Mari King, Joshua Farrell, Cara Kluver, Ian Riegler) (Photo credit: Joy Daunis)

In her program notes, Director Lee Costello shares, “The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 takes us back to the grand old days of that great old art form: screwball comedy. It’s also a time when Broadway plays were thriving, and backers’ auditions were wooing wealthy ‘angels’ to invest. But something’s afoot! Secret passages, baffling mysteries and a bewilderingly bizarre cast of characters populate our story and murder most foul overshadows them all.” And with her experience as assistant director of the world premiere of John Bishop’s play, which he wrote and directed in New York, Costello had a front row seat “as the cast navigated all the twists and turns of the story,” which she has skillfully directed with the necessary fast-paced timing needed thanks to the energetic cast at Theatre Palisades through June 30.

In this fun and farcical comedy, the creative team of a recent Broadway flop (in which three chorus girls were murdered by the mysterious Stage Door Slasher) assemble for a backer’s audition for financier Marjorie Baverstoick (Martha Hunter) of their new show at the Westchester, New York estate of a wealthy angel, Elsa von Grossenknueten (Michele Schultz), who has invited Det. Michael Kelly (Brendan Serapiglia) to investigate the house and her guests. The large home is replete with sliding panels, secret passageways to who knows where, and a German maid (Susan Stangl whose quick character changes are a highlight of the show) who, along with everyone else there, is not who they appear to be at first. In fact, could it be one of them is the Slasher living in the catacombs beneath the estate, just waiting for the right time to claim their next victim? And who will that be?

As composer Roger Hopewell (Richard R. Rosales) takes a seat at the piano, lyricist Bernice Roth (Mari King) brilliantly keeps drinking to avoid her fear of the inevitable, director of unseen Hollywood films Ken De La Maize (Steven G. Frankenfield), actor Nikki Crandall (Cara Kluver) and struggling comic Eddie McCuen (Ian Riegler) all prepare their new musical performance. But when a blizzard cuts off any possible retreat, bodies start to drop in plain sight, knives spring out of nowhere, masked figures drag their victims behind swiveling bookcases, and accusing fingers point in all directions.

However, and with no thanks to the bumbling police inspector Patrick O’Reilly (Joshua Farrell) who manages to show up in during the snowstorm to investigate, the mystery is solved in the nick of time and the Slasher is unmasked — but not before the audience has been treated to a side-splitting good time with a generous serving of the author’s biting, satiric, and refreshingly irreverent wit.

And as someone who often finds such fare a bit too over-the-top, I can tell you this one hits the mark as an entertaining two-act brainteaser guaranteed to keep you guessing while laughing at all the comings and goings through Sherman Wayne’s perfectly designed set, replete with French doors, a closet hiding a body at times, a hallway leading to a multitude of rooms, and several sliding or turning panels leading to pathways under and around the estate to keep even the sharpest of minds scratching their heads wondering who went where, with whom, why, and just how and when they will ever return? Or will the Slasher find them?

Performances ofThe Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 by John Bishop, directed by Lee Costello and produced by Martha Hunter and Hannah Jackson for Theatre Palisades, continue through June 30 on Friday/Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Pierson Playhouse, 941 Temescal Canyon Road, Pacific Palisades 90272. General admission tickets are $22 adults, $20 seniors/students with additional fees per ticket, available at the box office, or by calling (310) 454-1970. Free onsite parking.

John Clarence Stewart as Jelly Roll Morton with cast members in Jelly’s Last Jam at the Pasadena Playhouse. (Photo by Jeff Lorch)

After its 1991 world premiere at the Mark Taper Forum, Jelly’s Last Jam featuring a book by George C. Wolfe, music by Jelly Roll Morton, and lyrics by Susan Birkenhead with musical adaptation and additional music composed by Luther Henderson, went on to receive three Tony Awards, six Drama Desk Awards, and three 1992 Outer Critics Circle Awards including Best Broadway Musical. With its original score back in place, performances continue at the Pasadena Playhouse through June 23. 

Jelly’s Last Jam recounts the story of when legendary musician Jelly Roll Morton’s soul is forced to face the music, and the self-proclaimed “inventor of jazz” is left at the ultimate crossroads; following Jelly from the back alleys of New Orleans to the sparkling stages of New York, as his remarkable journey unfolds in a stunning display of song, dance, and music. With soulful melodies, electrifying tap dancing, and fiery tunes that will leave you breathless, this dazzling musical masterpiece is not to be missed!

The production is directed by Kent Gash, with music direction by Darryl Archibald, and energetic choreography by Dell Howlett, and features a triple-threat ensemble cast led by John Clarence Stewart as Jelly Roll Morton, Cress Williams as Chimney Man, and Jasmine Amy Rogers as Anita, along with Karole Foreman as Gran Mimi/Ensemble, Wilkie Ferguson III as Jack the Bear, Grasan Kingsberry as Buddy Bolden/Ensemble, Summer Nicole Greer as Miss Mamie, extraordinary Doran Butler as Young Jelly/Ensemble, Cyd Charisse Glover-Hill as Hunnie 1, Naomi C. Walley as Hunnie 2, Janaya Jones as Hunnie 3, Hannah Yosef as Too Tight Nora/Ensemble, Joe Aaron Reid as Foot-In-Yo-Ass Sam/Ensemble, and Eric B. Anthony as Three Finger Jake/Ensemble. Rounding out the ensemble are Davon Rashawn, Amber Liekhus, and Chante Carmel.

Packed with 18 songs and entertaining dance choreography, and staging reminiscent of Hadestown, the Devilish Chimney Man often barks orders from the top of a staircase to get the recently-departed Jelly to acknowledge the error of his ways so he may reach heaven. While the story itself is fascinating and the actors a wonder to behold, the too-long first act (90 minutes) ends at a rather dreary spot in the story, with Jelly expecting those closest to him to give in to his every “The Creole Way” demand. But in end, Jelly apologizes to the people from his past he offended so “The Concierge of His Soul” can welcome him into the heavenly light. It’s a great way for each ensemble member to have a moment in the spotlight as the featured character(s) each portrayed. And there are many, especially Anita and his friend Jack the Bear who stayed with Jelly through the trials and tribulations the trio faced on the road together.

Along with a magnificent 11-piece band conducted by Music Director Darryl Archibald, tech credits for bringing the jazz world of Jelly Roll Morton to the stage include Edward E. Haynes, Jr. (Scenic Designer), Samantha Jones (Costume Designer of more magnificent pieces than I could count), Rui Rita (Lighting Designer), Danny Erdberg and Ursula Kwong Brown (Sound Designers), Kendrick Lawson-Knight (Assistant Scenic Designer), Caylyn Dabney (Assistant Costume Designer), Omar Madkour (Assistant Lighting Designer) with Casting by RBT Casting (Ryan Bernard Tymensky, CSA). 

Jelly’s Last Jam tickets start at $44, available at, by phone at 626-356-7529, and at the box office at 39 South El Molino Avenue, Pasadena 91101. Dark Mondays.