The only bad thing about the Panhandle Players’ production of “Any Number Can Die” is that by the time you read this, it’s already had its weekend run and some of you missed it. That’s a shame because the witty send-up of 1920s murder mysteries was a wonderful evening of laughs and whodunit speculation.
Most enjoyable about Fred Carmichael’s 1960s hit is the audience is in on the joke from the very beginning. Under the steady hand of director Megan Lamb, all the requisite elements of an Agatha Christiesque tale are included.
Spooky house in the middle of nowhere: check. Crashing thunderstorm: check. Unreliable electrical service: check. Secret panels and passages: check. Suspicious servants: check. A diverse assembly for the reading of a will (at midnight, of course), including one or two red herrings: check. An indefatigable police inspector: check
The strength of the Panhandle Players’ production of “Any Number Can Die” lies both in Edward Aguiar’s gorgeous, superbly crafted set, which, complete with a plethora of secret panels, passages and peep holes is practically another character itself, and an eager cast breathing believability into familiar, cliché characters.
Community theatrefolk are sometimes called “actors by night.” During the day they have “real” jobs, so the performances you see on stage come from the heart. It’s when real estate agents, bankers and even newspaper editors unleash their inner muses, and in “Any Number,” the troupe let theirs run wild.
Particular kudos must go to retired barrister Henry Kozlowsky as hapless inspector Hannibal Hix on his first case, who pushes his inner Maxwell Smart up to but not quite over-the-top.
“Someone is not who he is but who he isn’t,” he wisely intones in mid-investigation.
Ably assisting him – or is it the other way around? – is Elizabeth Sisung’s capable poker-wielding Ernestine Wintergreen, who upon her first entrance to the Dixie Theatre stage brought fondly to mind the late First Lady of the American theatre, Helen Hayes, at first a meek elder but, in fact, anything but.
There are no “little” roles in “Any Number Can Die.” Katie Maxwell’s sweet Sally Van Viller, for example, brought bounce and innocence to an heiress-apparent. Royce Rolstad III as journalist Jack Regent was every show’s knight in shining armor, oozing gallantry from every pore.
Judy Loftus as the mysterious barefoot Haitian housekeeper Zenia was a fun romp, and her Creole accent held up steadily throughout the night. (I’ve always been a stickler for accents.) With dismissal worthy of Basil Fawlty, lawyer Ruth Masters, performed effectively by Bobbi Ann Seward, explains Zenia’s oddness with “She’s from Haiti.”
Tom Loughridge’s butler, Edgars, was but slightly more loquacious than Lurch. His periodic glances beyond the fourth wall spoke volumes and drew laughter. “Didn’t I see his face on a flying buttress at Notre Dame?” asks Ernestine.
As the failed millionaire T.J. Lathrop, Steve Allen, who reminded some of us immediately of Paul Bartel, was pleasantly unemotional. As his spoiled wife Celia, another heiress-apparent, Jeana Crozier was deliciously snotty.
“I’m not a wicked woman, really,” she said. “Just greedy.”
One of the biggest guffaws of the evening went to The Times editor David Adlerstein’s Carter Forstman, a Yalie with pomposity to spare – and a deadly secret – who brought down the house when he sneered upon Jack’s entrance “He’s a reporter! Sally, don’t say anything. He’ll misquote you.”
Adding verisimilitude to Saturday night’s performance was a real-life rainstorm pelting the Dixie Theatre. As Hix the investigator observed, “Perfect! The storm’s raging in all its fury. They always have storms for reading of wills.”
Thunder, lightning, a mysterious hoot owl and an ominous black-cloaked specter coming and going through secret passages combined with a skillful cast, director, set designer and Patrick Leach’s effective lighting to give a fun, new twist to a story that brought the appreciative audience a warm feeling of déjà vu.
Just as I always look forward to visiting delightful Apalachicola, I’ll eagerly await catching another Panhandle Players production at the Dixie Theatre.
Brian Hughes is Arts and Entertainment editor for the Crestview News Bulletin, a sister paper of The Times. He was theatre critic for the New Orleans Gambit Weekly, WTUL radio and reviews performing and visual arts in the Crestview area.