The key to a good murder mystery, comedy or not, is in the web of misdirection, and the handling of the ultimate reveal in a way that is equally surprising and sensible. The key to a great murder mystery is in crafting a tale that remains entertaining, even when the viewer already knows the ending.
I first saw Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 an indeterminate number of years ago, produced at Tacoma Little Theatre and directed by John Munn. It twisted, it turned, it did all the things a murder mystery ought, and it was funny, to boot.
Now we're on to 2012, and John Munn is managing artistic director of Lakewood Playhouse, producing Musical Comedy Murders once again, under the direction of James Venturini. And guess what? I remembered almost all the twists and turns, and I still laughed myself silly and had a generally grand time.
John Bishop's script is not a musical, despite what the title may suggest. Instead, it depicts the production team of a Broadway show, cut short by a string of grisly murders, brought together for a backers' audition of their latest script.
It is the duty of any worthwhile comedy to have fun with the well-known tropes of their genre, and as such, Murders is rife with secret passages, disguises, false identities, ominous radio broadcasts and that age-old classic, the mansion snow-in.
The cast, built largely out of reliable Lakewood standbys, strikes a skillful balance between witty banter and slapstick humor - the tale opens with an excellently choreographed and rendered chunk of physical comedy, utterly silent, that had the audience laughing riotously from minute one.
Matt Garry, last seen as Humphrey Bogart in Play it Again, Sam, gives the show its heart as Eddie McCuen, a struggling - very struggling - comedian along for the ride as a cast member. Full to the brim with the kind of terrible jokes no one actually does in comedy, at least anymore, he works his way through the grim circumstances to find his one true talent, involving creative use of a bottle of cognac.
The rest of the cast are equally entertaining, as actress, director, songwriters, producer, backer, maid and butler/police officer - don't worry, that's not really a spoiler - and whether you know the twists already or not, they all tie together into a heck of a good time.
[Lakewood Playhouse, Musical Comedy Murders of 1940, through May 20, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, $17-$23, 5729 Lakewood Towne Center Blvd., Lakewood, 253.588.0042]