UNO grad Rob Urbinati has been spending time recently at his alma mater directing a new version of his comedy Death by Design, first staged in Houston in 2011. This production is described as a “world-premiere” given that, evidently, it’s a modification of the original. This might be due to the insertion of three charming songs by Peter Mills. Information about such background is not revealed in the tiny program book. That is, though, where Urbinati reveals his inspirations. One is Noël Coward plays. Thus you can understand that the songs resemble Coward-like embellishments of his own material. This production, then, can’t really be called “a musical.”
Urbinati cites as impetus Coward’s wit and Agatha Christie’s murder-mystery plots. Certainly Urbinati endeavors to write snappy, brittle dialogue and fills the stage with a cast of potentially colorful characters. That stage, by the way, looks magnificent. Robbie Jones created the set and deserves a magnum of champagne for trying to make this sparkle.
Alas, most of it falls flat. The dialogue does some have amusing moments but on opening night the words and meaning were often pushed to the walls as performers went for the broad stuff, too often playing in volume and style akin to farce. Some of the actors seem to have talent but once the contagion of overplaying spread, there was no antidote. As a director, Urbinati could have had them engage in understated, quite civilized delivery in conversation and manners common to Coward and Christie characters. Such behavior would have made the dialogue subtly, delightfully outrageous and the situation more engaging by not trying so hard to be funny.
Oddly, the program lists Bridgit as “the Irish Maid” yet Faushia Weeden speaks all of her not- easy-to -understand dialogue with what sounds like a Jamaican accent. Is Bridget perhaps an immigrant to 1932 Ireland? Another mystery.
Bridgit becomes the Christie-like detective of this tale, collecting all suspects in one space. Seven other people remain in the house overnight and one of them, visiting Conservative party member Walter Pearce, becomes the object of menace. This takes place in the home of playwright Edward Bennett and his actress wife, Sorel. They enjoy quasi-nastiness with each other. Also on hand is lively Bennett chauffer Jack. Other arrivals are young political radical Eric, pistol-bearing, myopic Alice and modern interpretive dancer Victoria Van Roth (wearing a wonderful costume by Sharon Sobel.)
It appears that some members of this cast are not UNO students. The program book does not list performers’ credits to clarify, but there were auditions open to non-students in January (FYI: I attended but never saw the script).
You might want to know about Urbinati’s background. He has an impressive one as writer and director. Here in Omaha he staged Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale at UNO. And at Blue Barn Theatre directed his takes on Toxic Avenger: the Musical and three plays by Omaha’s Max Sparbar: Chelsea: From A to B and Back Again, Cruelties, and Minstrel Show, or the Lynching of William Brown. More at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rob_Urbinati.
The music is heard pre-recorded on a piano played by Doran Schmidt. As for inadequately unacknowledged composer-lyricist Peter Mills, he’s had many awards. He wrote music and lyrics, among others, for The Pursuit of Persephone , The Rockae, a rock musical based on The Bacchae., and Illyria, a musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. More: http://www.pcmills.com/bio.html
Regarding the title of this show, that too remains a puzzle.
Death by Design continues through March 8 at Weber Fine Arts Building, 6001 Dodge Street, University of Nebraska, Omaha. Wed-Sat. Mar. 5-8. 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $5-$15. More info at www.unomaha.edu/unotheatre or 402.554.PLAY (7529)