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Theater reviews: Mystery dinner theater shows

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Posted: Thursday, December 9, 2004 2:06 pm | Updated: 5:43 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

In any other context, witnessing a grisly homicide would be grounds for calling 9-1-1. Saturday night at The Buffalo Chip Saloon in Cave Creek, it merely signaled the main course was on its way.

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The kind of rustic place where the shells on the floor are more likely from peanuts than guns, the Buffalo Chip turns its dining hall over on weekends for “Murder at the High Noon Saloon,” a murder mystery dinner theater production centered on a Western theme, spurs and all.

The show is produced by Kerry Keepers’ Pistols & Petticoats; one of a few small companies in the Valley that produce light-hearted supper shows where the body count rivals the cholesterol count and audiences take part in the action when not chowing down on three-course meals.

By most accounts, murder mystery shows — which flourish in most medium to large cities — are a hit across the Valley. “Murder at the High Noon Saloon” has been running at The Buffalo Chip for four years to large crowds. An upstart theater troupe, Dead by Dessert, has its own Western whodunit, “Murder on the Or Ya Ain’t Express,” that’s playing scattershot dates in Tempe next year and gaining its own audience. The most successful murder mystery company here, The Mystery Mansion Dinner Theatre, has been running such shows in the Valley for 16 years and, no pun intended, making a killing at it.

“We’ve been successful for many, many years, and we still sell out (shows) with a lot of word-of-mouth,” says Glenn Foster, co-owner of Mystery Mansion with his brother, Kim. He says it’s a volatile market for a company without business-savvy, though, estimating he’s seen 11 competitors come and go since the Australian brothers moved to Scottsdale from Los Angeles. “It’s really hard to compete against us.”

All of the murder mystery companies say there’s a key ingredient to a successful murder mystery production: Comedy is king, and the mystery takes a back seat.

In other words, Whodunit? Who cares?!

“The body count isn’t necessarily important,” says Miciah Dodge, a partner in the fledgling Dead by Dessert and a longtime piano accompanist for Mystery Mansion shows. “Mainly, people are looking for interaction and they’re looking for comedy.”

There are a few universal truths about murder mystery dinner theater, for the uninitiated:

• The comedy ranges from hokey to, well, cheesy. “You gotta have cheap jokes,” Dodge says. Actors in drag earn big hoots, and in the case of the medical conference murder show “Murder at Bedside Manor,” characters are given names like Barb Bituate and Nurse Scratchit.

• Though the shows are staged in banquet rooms of well-regarded restaurants, the meals tend to be no-frills affairs like chicken or steak with modest fixings — “just to keep it simple,” Glenn Foster says — and quality rarely gets above what you’d find at a Denny’s.

• Storylines are about as convoluted and pointless to follow as a Jackson Pollock painting. More important than plot, though, is how the actors improvise comic bits, which add to the productions’ “replay” value.

• A good, socially relaxed mood is key to having a good time. Actors interact with (read: harass) audience members freely throughout the shows and can zero in on timid, hiding folks with the kind of radar technology only schoolteachers used to possess.

With that in mind, Get Out has created a guide to our favorite murder mystery dinner shows in the Valley:

‘Murder at the High Noon Saloon’

Pistols & Petticoats

7 p.m. first Sundays of the month at The Buffalo Chip, 6811 E. Cave Creek Road, Cave Creek; 7 p.m. various dates at Macayo’s Depot Cantina, 300 S. Ash Ave., Tempe

Plot: A rambling contrivance that kicks into motion when someone dies out back of the High Noon Saloon, owned by the hookermarm Chastity Belle and guarded over by the town drunk, Glen Fidduck, and Sheriff Makepeace (played by producer Kerry Keepers).

Oddball character: Rob Trygg as grubby, tooth-deficient boozer Glen Fidduck. “He is the show,” Keepers says.

Favorite quote: “Careful’s my middle name,” the sheriff says, then pauses. “Actually, it’s Lloyd.”

Food: Salad, steak, dessert. Don’t expect what’s on the regular menu at the Chip. Our steak was flabby, though our sides of cowboy potatoes and sweet biscuit were darn tasty.

Cost: $35-$45

Value: “Murder at the High Noon Saloon” is the most ribald, cussy, adult-oriented show of the bunch, jam-packed with innuendo. If you’re OK with that, the show’s a hoot all the way from its pie-eyed drunkard to its sexy “working girls” who wander the audience during the show, caressing and taunting males in the crowd.

Info: (480) 671-1764 or www.pistolsandpetticoats.net

‘Murder at Bedside Manor’

The Mystery Mansion Dinner Theatre

7:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat. at Kam’s Garden Restaurant, 2200 N. Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, or the Desert Rose Dinner Theater at the Grand Inn Hotel, 8955 N.W. Grand Ave., Peoria

Plot: Medical professionals convene for a conference in France for the unveiling of a new wonder drug, Curitol. In between medical fashion shows and appearances by fitness guru Little Dicky Slimmons and TV judge Moody Heimlich, bodies start dropping over Curitol’s potential profits.

Oddball character: Nurse Vein, the sultry but zaftig enigma played in drag

by actor Jim Trapani.

Favorite moment: After a recent show, a young attendee asked the dolled-up Trapani, “Are you a boy?,” to which he responded, without skipping a beat, “I’m Episcopalian.”

Food: Chicken and baked potato, salad, chocolate cake. So-so.

Cost: $35, not including tip for actor/server

Value: Two years old, the show still packs in crowds. A multimedia twist — large-screen TV and video cameras to increase sightlines in the dining hall — is an interesting gimmick, but even better are Trapani and Gary Caswell, hilarious improv actors who goof around with audiences in between and during scenes. (The casts rotate sometimes, so make sure to ask for nights those actors are scheduled to appear.) Show uses some innuendo and a spoof of the Janet Jackson Super Bowl incident includes a fake breast shot.

Info: (480) 994-1520 or www.mysterymansion.com

‘Murder at Greystone Manor’

The Mystery Mansion Dinner Theatre

7:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat. at Pronto Ristorante, 3950 E. Campbell Ave., Phoenix

Plot: Hollywood bigwigs gather for a screening of the 1923 silent movie “Love’s Foolish Parade” by filmmaker C.D. Weasel. His star, Louise Loveless, is poisoned, forcing the rest of the movie’s cast to examine their motivations for the murder.

Oddball character: Harold Joy, a silent Chaplinesque clown who plays with the audience in between scenes.

Favorite moment: Jim Trapani, once again in drag as the maid Jewel Precious, seeking affection and sympathy from a male audience member: “Look at these hands! These dishpan hands!” A pause. “What, too hairy?”

Food: A gravy-topped piece of chicken (more meager than the one at Kam’s) with rice and veggies, salad and ho-hum chocolate mousse.

Cost: $35, not including tip for actor/server

Value: It may not have as much replay value as sister show “Bedside Manor,” but “Greystone” still has its fan base: The show has been running in the Valley for eight years, producers say, regularly selling out Pronto’s banquet hall. Like at “Bedside,” the actors also serve the dinners, and a majority of their income comes from tips — which makes for awkward shilling at the end of the shows, especially “Greystone.”

Info: (480) 994-1520 or www.mysterymansion.com

‘Murder on the Or Ya Ain’t Express’

Dead by Dessert/JoriLee Productions

Beginning Jan. 8, 6:30 p.m. at Monti’s La Casa Vieja, 1 W. Rio Salado Parkway, Tempe

Plot: A cast of crazies meets on a night train from Glockenspiel to Kazoo when a lawyer is found murdered.

Oddball character: Ms. Rena Hirsute, the bearded lady.

Favorite quote: “Concentrate,” gypsy Giovina Myopia tells the audience. “Concentrate like you own an orange juice factory.”

Food: At its former venue, Bud Brown’s Barn in Phoenix, audiences were treated to tasty barbecue chicken. At Monti’s, organizers say, the menu will be the standards: steak, chicken or vegetable plates. Unlike at the other shows, audiences at “Or Ya Ain’t” eat before the show rather than during it.

Cost: $35

Value: “Murder on the Or Ya Ain’t Express” — written by co-producer Lee Quarrie — features earnest acting and a script that could use another rewrite to punch up the comedy, but it’s still the hokiest of the bunch. Of all the murder mystery shows, it’s the most family-friendly with nary a cuss word or dirty double entendre spoken.

Info: (623) 332-4012 or www.deadbydessert.com

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