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Charlie Chan and the Phantom of the Opera

The title of Dudley Saunders' new comedy-mystery with music, Charlie Chan and the Phantom of the Opera, might well have this addition to it: "As Staged by Agatha Christie."

The basic rules of the English mystery are the main framework in this premier production, with the manor house being replaced by an isolated, abandoned opera house on a Florida island, a hurricane to further confine the action, a mysterious figure operating behind the scenes, a fixed number of suspects, and a famous detective. Stir in some variations from the Hollywood movie versions of the Charlie Chan mysteries and you have a recipe for much frantic action, misdirection, surprises and an unmasking at the end.

Unfortunately, the Chan films and the books they were based upon relied heavily on racial stereotypes to move some of the important action and to provide a lot of the comedy. Since such plot devices are unacceptable in the politically-correct Nineties, Saunders was faced with the task of staying true to the Chan movies without offending modern sensibilities.

He replaced the role of the obsequious, shuffling black servant with Roberta, a dominating, boastful black female jazz singer with near-operatic vocal abilities. Even though this powerful figure, handled with swagger and certainty by Louisville native Dionne Smith, early on reveals her tough (and toughening) mean Chicago streets background, she is nevertheless terrified of spiders and snakes and phantoms and is given to fainting in the places necessary to move the action.

Saunders' other sop to p.c. was to have Salvatore, the world-class opera star on a comeback, describe Chan as a "China person." Bruce Racond played Salvatore as fading raconteur, with the lust and passion that earlier drove him now just a habit not recently tended to.

A first-act 'opera duel' between Roberta and Salvatore was great fun and allowed both singers to show off their pipes with little snippets from familiar operas. This scene, arranged by Derby Dinner's music director Bill Corcoran, was staged with the pacing of a Warner Brothers cartoon, down to and including an instantly familiar Bugs Bunny routine. The first act contained the bulk of the good laughs and some of the bits worked very well. Saunders penchant for physical comedy, particularly encouraged by the small stage of the Derby Playhouse, kept the early part of first act moving along and there was much dashing on and off stage, and in every direction, including up and down. Not all this action worked as well as it could have, however and the end of the first act dragged a bit. the intermission arrived along with the first body on the floor.

In the second act, all the questions from the first act, plus a few, are answered, not always satisfactorily. Mystery fans will be pleased to know that the rules are followed and the ending and unmasking are a surprise – to some.

The Derby cast assembled to stage this show included several new members and at least one Derby regular who is seldom seen on stage. Bill Corcoran, the Derby Dinner's resident music director, gets on the stage as the eccentric vocal coach Maximillian, who seems to be not from this planet. Perhaps in part because of his suit, a brown and beige plaid with highwater pants, Corcoran's Maximillian seemed to be a cross between Pee Wee Herman and Pinky Lee.

Bill Hanna as Oscar the curmudgeonly handyman steals his usual share of scenes, often by just walking across the stage. Kim Krege's impresario Melanie is a tad screechy, with an assumed Southern accent that could use some refinin'. Greylyn Gregory's role of Anastasia, so essential to the plot, seemed near to grafted on in the first act.

The play, directed by writer Saunders, will likely undergo some revision in the course of the run. The actors will also sharpen their interpretation of their roles, deciding whether to play it as camp or light comedy and that will help smooth the rough edges.

Charlie Chan and the Phantom of the Opera runs through February 23. For ticket information, call the Derby dinner Playhouse at (812) 288-8281.

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