murdermysteryblues.jpgIt sounds like an open and shut case: A hip London theater company snatched up some funny short stories by Woody Allen and adapted them for the stage, adding live jazz to punch things up. The stories feature a private dick named Kaiser Lupowitz and absurd cases like the search for the missing Almighty and women of the night who’ll talk Proust for a price. Murder Mystery Blues was a hit when it premiered across the pond, and a transfer to Allen-town seemed like a capital idea.

But what should have been the perfect criminal conspiracy between Allen’s noir-parody and smoky bebop ends up feeling like a night stuck in central booking. It could be that Allen’s stories just don’t have that zing on stage like they do on the page, but it’s hard to tell because the production itself is so sluggish. Could a better paced performance do justice to the material? I didn’t see the London version, so that’s a mystery to me.

It’s too bad because Murder Mystery Blues ought to be a fun romp. The show certainly starts off on the right foot, with a catchy jazz overture performed by the cast; everyone in the show shares musical and acting duties. And the first episode, in which Lupowitz is hired to track down God – who may or may not be dead – ekes some laughs out of Allen’s signature existential agitation.

But it also becomes clear from the get-go that the production has been badly cast. The focus seems to have been on finding musicians who wanted to try acting instead of actors who also play instruments. Alex Haven, who plays the lead role, is a professional sax player making his acting debut. Given his inexperience, it’s no wonder his performance as Lupowitz is tentative and dull.

A big part of what makes the detective genre succeed is the fun of riding shotgun with our perceptive, quick-witted hero, who always manages to stay one step ahead of the bad guys – even when we think he’s in over his head. In Murder Mystery Blues, Allen’s sardonic one-liners are muffled by Haven’s dense delivery; he seems better suited for the role of hired goon #3 than private eye. The real mystery here is why he was chosen for the part, since he only lets loose on the sax a couple of times during the show.

The lovely Andromeda Turre plays the ingénue in most of the episodes and has plenty of chances to show off her chops as a musician and dancer. But she's also a novice when it comes to theater and her scenes with Haven amount to dredging the lake for the bodies of dead jokes.

I'm relieved to report that Murder Mystery Blues isn’t relentlessly tedious. There are cheery moments that fulfill the concept’s great potential, mostly thanks to the music. Warren Wills’s score, with lyrics by director Janey Clarke, swings along with a breezy nonchalance that breathes life back into the room after the acting sucks it out.

The show’s saving grace is really the rollicking performance by Stephanie Dodd, who plays Lupowitz’s neglected secretary. Not only does she exhibit the professional chops and comedic instincts that most of the cast desperately lacks, Dodd has a blithe stage presence that steals dying scenes without half trying. (Her show-stopping solo, “Secretly Blind”, is Murder Mystery Blues' high-point.)

Also noteworthy is Mary Fahl, who’s known for her vocals in the original October Project. Though this is also Fahl’s theatrical debut, her acting is comfortable and poised, and her big solo number, “Only a Stream” is riveting. (She has a voice to die for.) When the others try to hold their ground with Fahl and Dodd, it only makes the choice to cast musicians as actors all the more baffling.

The second act features less music and fewer laughs. We’re subjected to a grating Woody Allen impersonation as Mike Murray plays a neurotic man who spends all his time at a dying friend’s beside in order to flirt with his buxom nurse. Another nadir is the cringe-worthy ballad strangled by Haven as he sits in his office and bemoans his broken heart. At least the set, which boasts a soaring city skyline designed by Maruti Evans, is pleasant to look at.

The final story, involving blackmail and brainy hookers who turn didactic tricks, is funny only in theory. But then the last chorus number, “Listen, Closer”, sends ‘em out on a high note; a fitting end to this uneven who-done-it. Somebody ought to drag the casting director downtown for questioning.

Murder Mystery Blues continues through December 31st at 59E59 Theaters. Tickets cost $45. (Photo by James Ambler.)