The Purple Victory cast points and gasps in shock during opening number “What’s Going on Tonight?” Photo by Kat Bell
*Correction: Total points possible is 636, not 634.
Judge 1 is a New York City based choreographer, director, and teacher. Judge 1 is also a member of the Actors Equity Association.
“Murder En Plastique” has all the magical elements of a theatrical storytelling experience. As soon as the lights go down, a drum beat sets the pulse of our journey, and the audience is instantly pulled into this fantastic (heck, downright joyful!) evening of mystery and mayhem, lyrics and laughs, and a HUUUUUUUUUGE dose of heart.
At the center of this creation is the impressive writing, and thankfully this brilliance spans across every page. This intellectually witty and heartwarming script pairs with a diverse score and brings forth a spring of emotional life.
I was swept away with lyrics that playfully enticed the audience and hilariously dove inside the inner thoughts of this fabulously specific batch of wacky, wonderful characters. To build these tintypes, so rich and layered in their archetypes, and to also construct fully formed story arcs for each of them is an impressive feat.
The genius part is how you took this murder mystery, a format we are all very familiar with, and gave it your own creative spin. Your characters felt so specific, full of surprises and intrigue. It honestly was like seeing a murder mystery for the very first time. I know it’s a tall order to create a 45-minute story that takes us from A to Z while simultaneously delivering a message, so you should feel very proud of this level of sophistication.
As you continue to think about the process, I do have one thought for the composers and lyricists. It is incredible that you were able to give us a variety of musical styles while still staying within the world you created. Your music fed the energy of the action and kept us anchored in the story. The ingenuity of having different styles represent the inner thoughts of the characters seamlessly moved us emotionally from intention to intention and scene to scene. It kept us on the edge, which is exactly what a murder mystery is supposed to do.
Now if you wanted to up your sophistication, the next part would be to play with some of these musical motifs returning in a reimagined way. Think about taking all of these musical themes and figuring out how to manipulate them over and over again in the score. That way they become malleable to you in the storytelling. In a way, the score also directs the subtext of the piece. Remember, you are the inner voice, the sound that helps us put the pieces together or resolve us emotionally.
This brings me to lyrics. One trap we can all fall into when writing a musical is this overwhelming pressure to make our lyrics expositional enough. Always weigh your options in what really needs to be said, and what MUST be said. Often times, expositional information can be implied and lyrics are what the characters are genuinely feeling in that moment. When the score, lyrics and director’s vision come together, you can then achieve all the contextual information we need as an audience member. Again, I have such respect for this undertaking, and I am inspired by your storytelling abilities.
ANNND, a huge applause break right now for your incredible orchestra! You truly translated all of the style of the piece and created an atmospheric experience for the audience. What I loved most about your execution was how, at times, you felt like a movie score. I was not always aware (in the front of my mind) that you were playing. You blended so perfectly with the world being built on stage. An orchestra will take center stage when appropriate and then in turn act as a subconscious supporting member of the journey. In the best of ways, I never noticed you. In the best of words, you were part of the fabric of the storytelling. Brava.
A complex script and score need a smart physical life, and it is very clear that “Murder En Plastique” had an extraordinary team of directors and choreographers at the helm. I bow down to the direction of this piece. It was smart and quick and clear, and a constant delight to the eye. You really gave us so much to look at and enjoy, with a million little character stories to latch onto, making the audience constantly feel like a fly on the wall of this fantastical journey. Most notable was your ability to capture a nostalgic time period and yet somehow keep the show modern and accessible. This is a very difficult balance when directing and choreographing, so I applaud you for maintaining this balance and allowing yourselves be brave in your storytelling.
To balance so many big, one-of-a-kind characters can be an overwhelming task, but you clearly rose to this occasion and quite literally brought these characters right off the page and onto the stage. One specific area I wanted to applaud you on is the use of the staff as a storytelling device. They honestly helped root us in our location, in the comedy and in the energy of the world. Their specific quirks helped paint the full picture and I enjoyed how they often relayed important information to us.
This leads me to your mastery in transitioning us from scene to scene with stage action. Your show was incredibly production heavy, so it was very smart to use musical numbers and scenes to help make these transitions possible. The “Accusation Song” is a good example of a transitional tool that could inform you when looking at the show as a whole. In this case, we get to learn about everyone’s thoughts in the moment while also journeying into the next phase of the story.
I know the one road to achieve this fluidity, and I applaud your success. “Murder En Plastique” feels like a perfect fusion of direction and choreography, with movement flowing seamlessly between dialogue and song. Honestly that is how it always should be. All storytelling is really movement, and those movements should always be an extension of the story being told. I thought your movement was sooo adorable and quirky and completely organic to the characters.
Now, a thought for you from one choreographer to another: This is a hard assignment because this specific storyline really only lends itself to musical staging or “storytelling movement” with a few chances to really do bigger chorus numbers. My advice is to NEVER feel pressured by dance. Some stories lend themselves to full on feet-to-the-floor extravaganzas, where other stories rely on incredibly creative musical staging and movement. Often times, that creative musical staging and movement is what shines through in its specificity and cleanliness. This is truly the essence of Choreography in musical theater: It must tell the story.
Never underestimate the power of this concept, but also don’t let it make you feel like you must create a big musical number where there isn’t one. For example, the final fight on the roof balcony comes to mind. Identify where you really need the movement for communicative reasons.
THIS IS A NOTE FOR THE ENTIRE CREATIVE COMPANY: When words are not enough, you sing. When singing is not enough, you dance. So, you see, the need for expression and communication of intention is the reason movement happens, and that importance is the same in a huge ensemble number as it is in a duet between two of your main characters. Those smaller movements and smaller numbers are enough. You can trust this.
To this cast. . . I’m daunted at how to fully express my obsession with all of you and your work. I just want to tell you how inspiring it is to watch people so fully develop characters, take risks, be in the moment and give themselves over to the story being told on stage. Know that I could write a personal paper to each and every one of you about how your performance blew me away.
Thank you for leaving it all on the stage, having the courage to bring such colorful characters to life and delivering this script with all of the smarts and smirks that made us feel a part of the team. I thank you, I want to be you, you sincerely gave me all the feels. This is a true example of first-rate ensemble work.
Now, just a reminder that with a script and score this lyrically luscious, a HUGE responsibility lies on actual delivery. Enunciation in the text becomes extremely important. Actors/directors – I would seriously consider stripping these characters down when working. Neutralize them of all their affectations at first to let the lines and intentions breathe and come through. Then you can begin to layer the character traits and tropes on top so the character work remains extremely clear.
To the technical staff, designers, costumers, crew and administrators, I must express a huge congratulations on pulling off such an ambitious show. Your organization is inspiring. I was blown away by your designs, from your large atmospheric sets that moved and turned and completely transformed the space, to the lighting, set dressing and props. It all met to make these new and mysterious Flower Hill locations come to life.
I really admire how fully you built out the set concepts and how smart you were in reusing pieces in creative ways. Notably, I am in awe of your transition from the main hall to the roof balcony in the end. This was truly Broadway-caliber work in how it functioned to serve the entire piece, and I can only imagine what a hard road it was to get there.
The lighting, props and scenery seemed to act in harmony, and I congratulate you. To the costume, hair and makeup team, I just express to you how creative I think you are and how well thought out all of your choices felt in this production. I can tell you did your research and dove head first into building these characters from the ground up with your ideas about clothes, hair and makeup styles. My only thought for you is that in some cases you can think even bigger.
Always weigh your complete look with everything else visually in the scene. Where does it need to land in terms of big? If you think, too much, decide whether it will be too much in the actual theater space. Especially with a piece this broad, exaggeration may be of benefit to you in balancing the overall look of the stage picture.
In conclusion, “Murder En Plastique” was and is a true stylistic achievement. A little “39 Steps” meets “Clue,” mixing with “Noises Off” and yet telling a story that feels completely fresh and new. The audience couldn’t help but be charmed by this original story.
As it entertained us, it also made us think, and ended up saying something so beautiful about home. Purple Side, it is clear to me that from onstage to behind the scenes, YOU BRING THE HEART, and that is what theater making is all about.
Judge 2 is a director and award-winning choreographer whose work has appeared in theatres across the country and on screen.
First of all, well done. I know that it isn’t an easy task to create an entire show. Your passion, commitment, talent and creativity were on full blast. Thank you for sharing all of it.
I was a bit confused by the drums in the overture. I felt that it didn’t connect to the story. However, the opening number “What’s Happening Tonight?” was a lot of fun. It was a great set up for the murder mystery. It really set the tone for the show. I really thought your concept of a murder mystery worked very well.
I think the strongest component of the show was the script. It was witty and snappy. I felt the authors really had a firm grasp of the style/genre. The directors truly understood it and I saw that through the performances of the actors. It wasn’t “overbaked.” The show truly was handled with a great eye and great care. There were a few times when the adherence was not as strong, but they were few and far between.
I loved the use of the set and its versatility. The addition of present cultural references was handled delicately. They were never over-used. That is evidence of strong writing.
I really enjoyed the choreography, but at times it was a bit over choreographed. The number that sticks out to me is “Plastic.” It felt like there was choreography for choreography’s sake instead of it being motivated and earned.
“Woman” is a great song; well done composers and lyricists. That song really played to Evelyn’s strengths.
The lighting designer did a very good job. It really helped to give the show focus. My only complaint is that directly in the middle of the stage was dark. Actors would walk in and out of the light and it was distracting.
“Tag Not It” was my favorite number in the show, especially the choreography. Stylistically, everything worked in simpatico. The fugue was a smart choice. The lighting was very impactful.
The puppet and puppeteer for the win. SO SMART. Award winning, in my opinion.
A couple of other standouts: the inventive way the characters were introduced, the commitment of the entire team did not go unnoticed. Everyone was “in” the show all the time. That is dedication.
It was my pleasure to see your show.
As an introduction, you should know that musical theatre has been my life. As a professional actor/singer/dancer/director/choreographer/lyricist and playwright, I have worked on Broadway, Off-Broadway, national and international tours, having been involved with some of the greatest musical theatre creators and performers in the business. I speak from a great deal of experience. Hopefully, you will find my following observations to be constructive and shared with the best of intentions.
CONCEPT. “Murder En Plastique.” I loved the idea of a musical murder mystery. The brief overture from the pit did end with a section of “Mysterioso” that helped set the mood, but it had been preceded by a drum section that I could best describe as “Mondo Bongo,” which sent my mind to a 1950s coffee house instead of Flowerhill Manor.
Important to remember that all aspects of a production must support the tone, the style and the intent of the piece.
SCRIPT. Good story line, but not too original. But then again, all murder mysteries in a manor house have somewhat similar storylines! Interesting variety of characters. In a mystery where anyone may be bumped off at any time, the characters should be unique, and they were. Especially enjoyable was the choice of a ventriloquist guest, giving the audience two characters in one. I cannot comment much further on the quality of the script as I was unable to understand a great deal of it due to poor diction from many members of the cast.
LYRICS. Serviceable, but again, a great deal of them were lost due to the same poor diction. Remember, in a musical the lyrics are as much a part of the book as the dialogue (or should be). I believe I remember a set of lyrics in the opening number to the effect of “something strange is happening at Flower Hill Manor,” sung by the entire company. It was strange that guests, hosts and staff would all be sharing the same thought when that thought had not been instigated by any particular event.
SCORE. Perfectly adequate. The ballads were more effective than the up-tempos with the exception of “You Got A Problem,” which was one of the highlights of the production.
DIRECTION. Ultimately, the director(s) are responsible for everything that appears on the stage: the good, the bad and the ugly. Their job is to create, to mold, to guide and to edit. So, the oft-mentioned diction problem falls directly on their heads. The staging was sometimes awkward, especially in moving large groups and creating stage pictures.
Another responsibility of the director is to subliminally inform the audience where to look, to focus their attention; and, in this matter, there was room for improvement. This ensemble was notoriously “busy” and distracting during scenes when the focus should have been on the leads. All extraneous movement and gesticulating and “indicating” should have been eliminated. The entire stage picture should be designed to focus the audience on what needs to be seen and heard to further the story line, and NOT on an ensemble waving their arms to tell the audience “I’m acting like I’m acting”.
A great director once said to his ensemble, “Don’t just do something. Stand there!” The crowd should be invested in the moment spiritually and emotionally, but not histrionically. The Purple directors were able to mine some laughs from dragging a dead body around, and provided a good laugh line to the effect: “Sing one song about being a strong woman…”
Regarding the dead body. . . I wish someone could explain to me what the heck was going on when the hefty young man in the ensemble who bent over the body then appeared to pick something off of it, sniff it or eat it, then scamper offstage! I have no earthly idea what that was all about, but as an audience member, it took me out of the show for a minute trying to comprehend that stage business and strange exit. Confusing and bizarre.
I enjoyed the directors’ choice of the cast throwing themselves into a frenzy after the sheriff says “Everyone stay calm.” It was a great old bit of comic business that we could have used more of. Actually, the sheriff says it a second time and I was disappointed when the cast didn’t react with the same frenzy. If they had, the directors could have gotten a third laugh by finding a place for the cast to tell the sheriff “Calm down” and he goes wild. A good place for that would be when the Sheriff goes off to save Evelyn. Humor works well in threes.
While we’re in that moment, the directors gave Puck a “false move” as a piece of business. He has just found the real will, the piece of evidence that will prove the innocence of the woman he loves, and he nonchalantly hands it off to a stranger to go find Evelyn instead of keeping it as evidence. That bit of staging rings false because it violates the given circumstances and the character’s intentions. He’s the sheriff. He would have kept it.
CHOREOGRAPHY. Reminder: when staging a number with the full cast, groups which are singing the same lyrics must be of the same thought, and the choreography should support that thought. However, if there are characters in the number with different thoughts, their staging should reflect that.
In any case, a single pirouette done poorly says nothing, and there were far too many of those. Group choreography should consist of a vocabulary of movement attainable by all performing it. And in Evelyn’s number with the backup trio, it would have been more effective to have the trio closer to Evelyn throughout the number.
When they separated from Evelyn (sometimes at a great distance) the audience was forced to choose whom to follow. At one point the trio was downstage right, Evelyn was upstage center and Puck was in darkness stage left, and the moment became about the trio instead of what Evelyn was trying to express to Puck. Remember a backup group is just that, a “backup,” not a distraction.
P.S. Bramwell the bird should have had a dance solo. I firmly believe Mr. Coleman could have made him dance.
ACTING. Again, diction. I will point out that the two actors with the best diction were Mr. Coleman and Mr. Moore, but I wish the directors had not staged Mr. Moore to turn upstage to address the dining table full of characters. As a whole, the cast exhibited a great deal of physical dexterity and a wide vocabulary of movement, which I personally appreciate in performers.
SINGING. Except for that diction thing, the singing was impressive. Special nod to Daniel Moore. His vocal production is clean, clear, unadulterated and unaffected. An effortless sound that seems an extension of his natural speaking voice.
DANCING. Great energy! Lots of fun being displayed. And mostly very uniform (except for that single pirouette obsession).
ORCHESTRA. Impressive sound considering the amount of time to create, orchestrate and rehearse. Never overpowered the vocals. Considering there were actors with on-body mics, others without and musicians in a pit, it was a very good job of balancing and compatibility.
COSTUMES. According to the program, we were in 1954, but I would never have guessed from the costumes. Could have been more effective choosing a period with a well-defined style, like the 40s or the 30s. One costume was indeed unfortunate. Why would Joseph Shepard, businessman, show up to dinner in a black trench coat and never take it off. The black trench coat was especially unfortunate on a black-haired actor with dark skin who often had to deliver plot points in dark spot center stage? Which leads me to:
LIGHTING. First and foremost, there was a dark spot centerstage. Truthfully more of a galactic black hole that swallowed all that came within it. It seems that everyone passed through it one time or another and immediately disappeared! Several times during the performance I could hear someone talking but not see them. I would scan the stage to see whose mouth was moving, but could not find the source due to the Black Hole of Calcutta and the well-lighted periphery where the rest of the cast was busy being busy with their focus pulling gymnastics!
P.S. I’m giving this same note to the Golds. Also, if I remember correctly there was only one follow spot. Whoever staged the duets should never have allowed the actors to be so far apart that the spot couldn’t open up to include both in light.
SETS. Impressive use of the box units, turning, moving to place, revolving for multiple use. Considering the number of actors who ran up and down those stairs, they seemed to be fairly sturdy and well-constructed.
My first impression of the manor’s interior was a bad reaction to the color choice. The subject matter inside the large frames were in the same color palette as the wall, so they essentially disappeared. In other scenes, flat painted walls needed some sort of texturing to break up the monotony, such as darker shading at the top to bring the focus down onto the actors, stripes or patterns which can easily be achieved with stencils. And some consideration should have been given to that staircase. When it was in place, it was a big brown behemoth lording over center stage. It could have been made more interesting (and truer to the style) by simply painting a carpet on it.
HAIR AND MAKEUP. Again, the hair and makeup did very little to define the period. I would have liked every female who worked at the Manor to have their hair up and off their shoulders and the hair on the male staff should have been slicked down to approximate some uniformity in style.
LIGHTING DESIGN. You know what I’m going to say: basic lighting technique dictates that center stage, the most powerful position onstage, should never be the antinode wherein an actor goes to hide from the audience. It does a disservice to the actors, to the play and most importantly to the paying audience. In addition, the lighting plot for “stage generals” was very uneven.
A general note to males in the ensemble: be men onstage. There was entirely too much “mincing.” It’s a term. Avoid it.
In conclusion, I enjoyed a great deal of “Murder En Plastique,” when I could hear it. You should be proud of your hard work. Hopefully, my observations will be kept in mind as you move forward to next year’s “College Night.” I was honored to be a part of this Centennial Celebration and I thank you (and the University) for the opportunity to share in this special event.