Actors play their parts gamely in ‘Clue: The Musical’ at the Arts Barn

Arts on the Green and Montgomery Playhouse stage a head-scratchingly absurd musical entertainment, but the cast has a good time with it.

Clue: The Musical is pretty much what you would expect from a musical based on a board game.

It has nothing to do with the cult classic movie Clue, which starred the likes of Tim Curry, Christopher Lloyd, and Madeline Kahn (“flames… flames… on the side of my face…”), which has also been making the rounds as a play.

No, Clue: The Musical is exactly that. A game of Clue. With music.

Jill Vanderweit (Miss Scarlet), Laura Searles (Mr. Green), Matthew Ratz (Mrs. White), Tracy Davidson (Mrs. Peacock), Christopher Martin (Colonel Mustard), and Jenn Robinson (Professor Plum) in ‘Clue: The Musical.’ Photo by Cassandra Redding.

But even how one is supposed to play “The Game,” which Mr. Boddy (the victim-to-be, who “lives to die”) explains in the first number, is not entirely clear. The audience is given scorecards in the program and told to use the rhyming clues dropped during the show to deduce the killer, location, and weapon, and to “play to win.” Then, three audience members are called up on stage to pick cards at random for those three things, which are placed onstage in a large envelope marked “Confidential.” Apparently, those cards are used to adjust the clues the audience is given throughout the rest of the show. At the end, the chosen murderer, method, and place are revealed. Sort of. And finally, an audience member is picked in a raffle to win a prize.

The book, by Peter DePietro, makes only the loosest kind of sense, since it has to be adjustable to “216 different endings.” It feels more like a shuffling of game pieces rather than a story. Characters appear in various “rooms” with various weapons (sometimes handed to them, for some reason, by their target Mr. Boddy — whether this is in the script or a decision of the director is anyone’s guess). They sing solos, duets, or group numbers that seem mostly like lists or patter songs rather than motivated musical numbers. (Lyrics are by Tom Chiodo.) The music, by Galen Bloom, Wayne Barker, and Vinnie Martucci, is a pastiche of styles like tango and waltz. It is sometimes dissonant, hopefully to emphasize the mystery.

At one point a character says, “You are all acting like a bunch of board-game characters!” which is clearly meant to be a third-wall-breaking joke but comes across as perplexing because that is exactly what they are. Just like in the game, each one has a color, a name based on that color, and a type. In addition, here they are also given attempts at backstories, so they all have a motive to kill Mr. Boddy. But why they would do it in a particular room with a particular weapon is also unclear, since they all seem to be playing musical chairs with locations and objects. (Also, shouldn’t the Detective be able to determine how the victim was murdered, and thus the murder weapon…but that’s bringing way too much logic to bear.)

Mostly, the characters are just walking types, which the actors play gamely, as it were.

Tracy Davidson (Mrs. Peacock), Jenn Robinson (Professor Plum), Jill Vanderweit (Miss Scarlet), Kirk M. Patton Jr. (Mr. Boddy), Christopher Martin (Colonel Mustard), Matthew Ratz (Mrs. White), and Laura Searles (Mr. Green) in ‘Clue: The Musical.’ Photo by Cassandra Redding.

As Mr. Boddy, Kirk M. Patton Jr. has an elegant and mysterious air, although on opening night he seemed to be struggling with his plethora of rhyming lines and clues — that will likely improve with time.

Tracy Davidson plays the conniving, husband-disposing Mrs. Peacock to the hilt, using a strong voice to make the most of her big number, “Once a Widow,” although one might have wished for a few fewer husbands.

Jenn Robinson, as one of the production’s gender-bent characters, Professor Plum, is smooth and erudite, with a marvelous purple pompadour that looks sharp enough to be one of the murder weapons. Plum’s running gag, correcting other characters’ use of “shall” or “will” warmed this English major’s heart — the first time. The next three times, it started to wear a bit thin, despite Robinson’s best efforts. Robinson does have a very engaging duet with the Detective in the second act, trying to seduce her with literary quotations, while she parries with more.

Miss Scarlett, as embodied by Jill Vanderweit, comes through as a very funny cross between Adelaide from Guys and Dolls and a ditzy Jennifer Coolidge floozy.

Christopher Martin has the rather bewildering role of Col. Mustard, a soldier who was kept out of the army (so how is he a Colonel?) because he has a disorder that makes him mistake people for inanimate objects. (Don’t you just hate it when that happens?) He does get to turn this quirk into a funny bit where he dances and makes out with one of the set pieces.

Matthew Ratz, as the classic British “dame” character (big-guy-with-beard-and-chest-hair-in-drag), the cook Mrs. White, consistently amuses with a serviceable servant-class accent, a strong voice in his solo, “Life Is a Bowl of Pits,” and excellent comic timing. One of the highlights of the show is his repeating of a single word, “lounge,” over and over during the number about how the weapons got to various murder locations. That takes serious comic chops.

As Mr. Green, another piece of gender-blind casting, Laura Searles electrifies the stage with her energy and voice. She squeezes the most out of every bit her character is given, from malaprop clichés to farcical facial expressions and moves to her steamy duet with Miss Scarlett.

Courtney Camden, who shows up as the Detective in the second act, makes what she can of a cipher of a character who isn’t even from the game. Her repeated bit is a long pause accompanied by the sound of crickets, followed by her snapping, “Stop looking at me!” It is unclear whether this is supposed to be funny, or indicate something about her mental state, or… ?

But very little of the show makes sense, so the Director/Choreographer, Naomi Kieval, has to find humor where she can. She leans into absurdity and innuendo with gusto. In one dance number, one character shows up with what appears to be a cellphone tripod, another with a package of hot dogs, and another with a sex toy. Why? Why not, I guess. One of the funniest bits is when Mr. Green shows that he is in the Billiard Room by bringing in a toy pool table and proceeding to play it on the floor, including leaning on the tiny cue, contemplating his next shot. At another moment, Professor Plum dances across the stage blowing bubbles from a meerschaum pipe. Again, why not? It’s cute.

Zach Henderson, the Music Director/Pianist (and…. well, you’ll just have to come see), handles the small band well and coaxes some nice harmonies out of the cast.

Jill Vanderweit (Miss Scarlet), Christopher Martin (Colonel Mustard), Tracy Davidson (Mrs. Peacock), Laura Searles (Mr. Green), Matthew Ratz (Mrs. White), and Jenn Robinson (Professor Plum) in ‘Clue: The Musical.’ Photo by Cassandra Redding.

The set, also designed by Keival, leans into the board-game theme, with giant dice, game tokens, and even a huge player’s hand. The different rooms are evoked by six square pillars with different patterns on each side, and the characters also get to interact with them to good effect. It’s a shame the “Clue” logo at the top of the proscenium wasn’t more neatly painted, but the “Clue” cards for murderer, location, and weapon were well done by Matthew Ratz. Cassandra Redding’s costumes establish the characters’ colors, just as they need to do, and extra points for finding an entire goldenrod-colored suit and pith helmet for Col. Mustard.

If you have a high tolerance for head-scratching absurdity and unsubtle innuendo and are in the mood for actors having a good time serving up utterly unserious entertainment, you might enjoy playing along with Clue: The Musical. Reality being what it is, this could be the break your brain needs.

Running Time: Two hours, including intermission.

Clue: the Musical plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 2:00 pm through August 21, 2022, presented by Arts on the Green in partnership with Montgomery Playhouse performing at the Arts Barn, 311 Kent Square Road, Gaithersburg, MD. Tickets ($24, general; $20, students 15–21; $15, youth 14 and under) are available online or in person at the Arts Barn box office.

COVID Safety: Masks are recommended but not required in City of Gaithersburg facilities. Social distancing is also encouraged to the extent possible.

Clue: The Musical

Book by Peter DePietro
Music by Galen Blum, Wayne Barker, and Vinnie Martucci
Lyrics by Tom Chiodo

Directed by Naomi Kieval Ratz
Music directed by Zach Henderson

Mr. Boddy – Kirk M. Patton Jr.
Professor Plum – Jenn Robinson
Mrs. White – Matthew Ratz
Mr. Green – Laura Searles
Mrs. Peacock – Tracy Davidson
Miss Scarlett – Jill Vanderweit
Colonel Mustard – Christopher

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Over the past [mumble] decades Jennifer has acted, directed, costumed, designed sets, posters and programs, and generally theatrically meddled in Maryland, Princeton, London, and Switzerland. She has made a specialty of playing old bats – no, make that “mature, empowered women” – including Mama Rose in Gypsy, the Wicked Stepmother in Cinderella at Montgomery Playhouse; Dolly in Hello, Dolly! and Carlotta in Follies in Switzerland; and Mrs. Hardcastle in She Stoops to Conquer, Golde in Fiddler on the Roof, and Mrs. Higgins in My Fair Lady in London. (Being the only American in a cast of 40, playing the woman who taught Henry Higgins to speak, was nerve-racking until a fellow actor said, “You know, it’s quite odd – when you’re on stage you haven’t an accent at all.” She has no idea why she keeps getting cast as these imposing matriarchs; she is quite easy-going. Really. But Jennifer also indulges her lust for power by directing shows including You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown and Follies, and Woody Allen’s Mr. Big in the MP One Acts Festival. Most recently, she directed, costumed and designed the set for RLT’s She Stoops to Conquer. In real life she is a speechwriter and editor, and tutors learning-challenged kids for standardized tests and application essays.

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