Tainted Evidence

Curtain Call makes the best of a bad situation in its production of Clue, based on the board game

Talk about a blessing in disguise.

Last year, after announcing its intention to stage that depraved musical La Cage aux Folles, the Curtain Call Repertory Theatre lost its home at the West County YMCA. No matter that Jerry Herman's Broadway hit played more than 1,600 performances at the Palace Theater without corrupting anyone's morals; it wasn't deemed palatable fare for the YMCA -- thus adding yet another stain to the St. Louis Wall of Shame, alongside such feared productions as Sister Mary Ignatius, Hair and Bent, and doubtless right next to the spot the wall-keepers are already busy preparing for next month's arrival of The Vagina Monologues.

So Curtain Call left the YMCA and moved out to Faust Park, where the company has lucked into the most delightful digs imaginable. The new theater is no theater at all; it's simply a carved-out space in the corner of the attractive Carousel House, but it works great. The arena stage is surrounded by just two rows of seats, thus assuring the same warm intimacy that also is found in the tiny studio where the New Jewish Theatre performs with such vitality.

Best of all, on show nights park officials keep the 80-year-old Forest Park Highlands carousel up and running. Before and after the performance, and even during intermission, Curtain Call patrons can enjoy complimentary rides on this beautifully restored relic. You can't do that at the YMCA -- or anywhere else, for that matter. Surely there's not another theater in all America that offers such a serendipitous combination.

Curtain Call's current stage offering is based on Clue, the venerable board game (introduced in 1949) whose colorful suspects, weapons and rooms have entered our lexicon. Only last week, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, in referring to the FBI's inability to track down the anthrax killers, wrote, "Robert Mueller begs us to help the FBI find clues. Was it Colonel Mustard in the library with the spores on the candlestick?" Everybody knows Clue.

In this musical stage adaptation, the audience is encouraged to play along with the cast. Although the show offers 216 possible solutions, on opening night two stunned audience members actually succeeded in correctly guessing all three components -- then likely went straight to the nearest outlet to buy lottery tickets. But how much you enjoy Clue: The Musical will depend less on how savvy a sleuth you are and more on how demanding your musical-theater tastes are. Stephen Sondheim, it's not. (Jerry Herman, it's not.) In fact, the real mystery here is how it could have required five -- count 'em, five -- composers, lyricists and librettists to write such an insipid show.

Originally staged in Baltimore in 1995, the musical -- or maybe it's a revue; it's hard to discern the creators' intent -- moved off-Broadway in 1997, where critics rendered it deader than Mr. Boddy. But in recent years there have been so few new American musicals that, instead of vanishing from the scene, Clue has resurrected itself with a Web site. Now it gets produced in unsuspecting regional and community theaters on a regular basis.

Although the material is high on shortcomings, if you enter the theater with low expectations, chances are you'll have a diverting evening. As co-directed by Dennis Shelton and Tina Poynter-Boucher (who effectively doubles in a cross-dressing performance as Professor Plum), there's a cleanliness about the production -- both in its spare set and color-enhancing costumes -- that's highly refreshing. Especially in ensemble songs such as "She Hasn't Got a Clue," the energetic cast does its utmost to disguise the show's cadaverous condition. Lynda Waters, the company's resident Angela Lansbury, has a lot of fun with Mrs. White, and Michelle Barbarash is a beguiling Miss Scarlett. As Mr. Boddy, the hapless victim, Scott Meesey strives mightily with dialogue that is exasperatingly written in contrived, rhymed couplets. One senses he's almost relieved when he's finally murdered.

But if there's not much to love about this innocuous musical, there's also not much to loathe, either. True, you're not likely to leave Faust Park humming these tunes, but theater isn't always measured by the specifics of what you remember. Sometimes it's gauged by the total experience. An evening of mindless entertainment that includes a free ride on a rare gem of a carousel -- at night, no less, when the reflections of its hundreds of glowing light bulbs whirl and swirl on shiny black glass walls -- well, that's a theater experience to savor.