“Laura is the face in the misty light, footsteps that you hear down the hall, the laugh that floats on a summer night that you can never quite recall…”

Anyone familiar with the mid-20th Century Hit Parade will surely recall the David Raskin/Johnny Mercer song standard “Laura” and its many covers by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, and the majority of film buffs will likely have seen the 1944 Otto Preminger film noir classic of the same name, starring Dana Andrews as a detective investigating the murder of a beautiful, successful ad executive (portrayed in flashbacks by Gene Tierney) and based on a novel by Vera Caspary.

 Beverly Hills’ Theatre 40 now brings Laura back to life at the Reuben Cordova Theatre in an entertaining stage version of Caspary’s mystery, adapted by the novelist herself (in collaboration with George Sklar) and starring Julie Lancaster and Grinnell Morris in the roles made famous by Tierney and Andrews, with Robert MacKenzie featured as catty gossip columnist Waldo Lydecker, the part that won Clifton Webb the first of his three Oscar nominations.

 A warning to those expecting a scene-by-scene reenactment of the Preminger classic: Gone are the film’s many locales along with one of its main characters, Laura’s wealthy socialite aunt, played by Judith Anderson in the film. More significantly missing are the interviews conducted initially by Detective Mark McPherson of Laura’s friends and confidants, recollections of the deceased which bring the beautiful murder victim so vividly back to life in the detective’s mind’s eye that he finds himself falling for her to the point of obsession.

Still, Caspary and Sklar have managed to reconfigure novel and film into a good old-fashioned three-act, one-set mystery thriller, one which offers its actors some gems of roles to play, from hard-boiled detective to sophisticated career gal to fluttery housekeeper to lovestruck teen to acid-tongued gossip monger. And much like the three-act, one-set Agatha Christie adaptations that have been among Theatre 40s most popular offerings, Laura offers its audience tantalizing clues amidst a red herring or two before revealing “who done it” in the play’s suspenseful, damsel-in-distress finale.

 Under David McClendon’s astute direction, the entire cast adroitly capture the era’s pre-Method style of acting, one that may seem stiff or stilted to modern ears but suits the period, the genre, and Caspary and Sklar’s dialog to a T.

Laura reunites real life husband and wife Lancaster and Morris for their fifth Theatre 40 production and the charismatic duo tackle their period roles with such 1940s panache and snap, you almost expect to be seeing them in black and white. Despite a few too many fluffed lines, MacKenzie’s Lydecker possesses the wickedly clever serpent’s tongue of this fictionalized Walter Winchell. As Laura’s fiancé Shelby, Blake Boyd pays entertaining tribute to all those ‘40s actors who inevitably lost the girl to Bogart or Ladd or Mitchum, and Gail Johnston’s terrific Bessie (Laura’s faithful maid) has quite a bit of Thelma Ritter in her. As Danny, the teenager with a crush on more than Laura’s record collection, handsome newcomer Jonathan Baron nails the gee-whiz spunk of a ‘40s movie teen and Rhonda Lord is a scene-stealing marvel as his gorgon of a mother, rhymingly named Mrs. Dorgan. Samuel Druhora completes the cast in the cameo role of policeman Mr. Olsen.

 Laura is as spiffy-looking a Theatre 40 production as I’ve seen, from scenic designer Jeff G. Rack’s upscale New York apartment with its picture-perfect wall sconces, elegantly upholstered sofa and armchairs, and 1948 Victrola and accompanying 78s, all of the above lit to perfection by Ellen Monocroussos. Bill Froggatt’s topnotch sound design has just the right effects in addition to the classic title song as mood setter, though curiously not in the opening scene where it would seem most expected. Michèle Young’s spot-on costumes have that distinctive ‘40s flair, from the men’s double-breasted, pin-striped suits to Laura’s sleek, form-fitting dresses to Bessie’s cleaning lady frump, and the cast deserve added snaps for their faultless ‘40s coiffs.

Laura is produced by David Hunt Stafford. Michael Frank is stage manager.

Ultimately, although Caspary and Sklar’s stage adaptation ends up not nearly as inspired as the Preminger-Andrews-Tierney film noir classic, it makes for a well-acted, entertaining suspense dramedy, particularly for those with a fondness for the fabulous ‘40s.

Theatre 40, 241 S. Moreno Dr., Beverly Hills.

–Steven Stanley
April 5, 2012
Photos: Ed Krieger

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