Miss Jane Marple, the elderly spinster/amateur sleuth created by Agatha Christie in 1930, starred in a dozen novels up through the early 1970s (never aging a day), but only twice did she appear live on stage, thereby making it a special treat for whodunit fans that Glendale Centre Theatre has revived Leslie Darbon’s stage adaptation of A Murder Is Announced with all-around terrific results.

“A murder is announced and will take place on Friday, October 29th, at Little Paddocks, at 6:30 p.m. Friends accept this, the only intimation,” reads a notice posted in the morning paper of a small English village called Chipping Cleghorn. This comes as a shock to Letitia Blacklock (Stephanie Jones), middle-aged owner of Little Paddocks, the village rooming house, as it does to her 20something cousins Patrick and Julia Simmons (Patrick McMahon and Tosca Minotto), her dithery childhood friend Dora “Bunny” Bunner (Osa Danam), young widow Phillipa Haymes (Cynthia Stults), elderly Mrs. Swettenham (Kate Landro) and her preening son Edmund (Todd Andrew Ball), Miss Blacklock’s excitable Eastern European housekeeper-cook Mitzi (Marcy Lynn Agreen), and naturally Miss Marple (Patsy Ferguson), all of whom find themselves at Little Paddocks on the evening of October 29, either by chance or by design.

Upon the stroke of 6:30, who should suddenly enter the drawing room where the future suspects find themselves gathered but Rudi Scherz (Paul Reid), a local spa receptionist, gun in hand, demanding that they all “Stick ‘em up!” The lights suddenly go out, shots are fired, and general panic ensues. Once electricity has been restored, one of the ten lies dead on the floor—precisely as the announcement had predicted, and it’s up to Inspector Craddock (Richard Malmos) of the Chipping Cleghorn police (and of course Miss Marple) to figure out just exactly who pulled the trigger.

As any fan of the undisputed “Queen Of Crime” can easily predict, there will be inquiries into the suspects’ pasts, secrets will be unearthed, and red herrings will point us in the wrong direction. Craddock and Miss Marple learn, for example, that Letitia once worked for financier Randall Goedler and is set to inherit his estate upon the death of his infirm wife Belle, that is unless Letitia dies first, in which case Goedler’s estate will go to his niece and nephew Pip and Emma, twins whose physical appearance and current whereabouts are anyone’s guess.

Christie’s 1950 novel had a few more characters than Darbon’s 1977 stage adaptation (gone are Colonel and Mrs. Easterbrook, and the Misses Hinchcilff and Murgatroyd, and a scene with Belle that reveals significant information withheld in Darbon’s version)—but the stage adaptor has done a generally spiffy job of streamlining Christie’s plot to fit a one-set, two-act, two hour play.

Clues still include a deceased sister, a lamp, a misspoken name, missing photos, and iodine, just to name five. Naturally, only Miss Marple will be able to put them all together and come up with the name of the cold-blooded killer, only Miss Marple and you, that is, if you pay careful attention.

Director Diedra Celeste Miranda and her cast have done their Agatha Christie homework, resulting in a production which captures the look and feel of a Christie novel with its distinctive, idiosyncratic characters, its sly humor (yes, it’s all right to laugh!), and its slice of mid-20th Century British life—with mostly more-than-satisfactory English accents.

From Margaret Rutherford to Angela Lansbury to Helen Hayes to Joan Hickson, each actress who’s played Miss Marple has put her own stamp on the iconic role, and Ferguson is no exception, making the spinster sleuth a bit bubblier than we’ve seen her before, but no less clever and plucky when confronting murder and murderer.

The marvelous Jones brings elegance, grit, and a charismatic stage presence to the role of Letitia. Minotto is a quirky delight as Julia, particularly when sparring with real-life beau and stage brother McMahon, excellent as the spoiled Patrick. Danam has fluttery down pat as Bunny, Stultz is a glamorous, sympathetic Phillipa, and Landro and Ball do first-rate work as the doting Mrs. Swettenham and her mama’s boy Edmund. Malmos is the embodiment of British efficiency and intelligence as Inspector Craddock, and Kyle Kelley gives fine support as Sergeant Mellors. Completing the cast and stealing every scene she’s in is the hilariously over-the-top Agreen, the embodiment of every “foreigner” Christie inevitably threw in to add spice to her otherwise prim and proper British mix of characters.

Director Miranda knows all the ins and outs (or should that be the rounds and abouts?) of staging a big-cast play in the round, and she insures that no matter where you are seated, you are not shortchanged (unless you sit behind the sideboard, which will block your view of all but the first body’s legs). No matter, Tim Dietlein’s set design makes us all flies on Little Paddock’s walls, and his imaginative lighting design is never better than when combined with sound designer Andrew Villaverde’s clever choice of mood-setting tunes, as the lights go out one by one by one at the beginning of each of the play’s two acts. Angela Wood and The Costume Shoppe have designed some of the very best mid-20th Century ensembles you’re likely to see, with several costume changes for each character and a grand total of four fabulous hats for Landro’s Mrs. Swettenham. The women’s hairdos are spot-on for the era, though curiously some have seams in their stockings and others anachronistically do not.

Glendale Centre Theatre has acquired quite a local following for its in-the-round musicals, among them The Will Rogers Follies, which recently won five Scenies, but GCT does equal justice to the several straight plays it stages each year, like equally awarded The Hasty Heart. A Murder Is Announced proves that Brenda and Tim Dietlein’s family theater can stage Agatha Christie with the best of them. You may or may not be able to guess the murderer’s identity, but you’ll have a devilishly fun time matching wits with Miss Marple—and with the killer of course.

Glendale Centre Theatre, 324 N. Orange St., Glendale.
–Steven Stanley
October 27, 2010

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