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Review: 'No Way To Treat a Lady' is small fun at Stage Door Theatre

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The two male characters in “No Way To Treat a Lady,” the newly opened musical at Stage Door Theatre in Margate, have mommy issues.

New York police detective Morris “Mo” Brummel (Dustin Cunningham) is of a certain age, but he still lives with his mother, Flora (Kimberly Abrams), in her tidy Manhattan apartment, where she proceeds to tell him daily how much she prefers her other son, Franklin, a successful doctor. Basically, in control-freak Flora’s view, Morris specializes in failing to meet her expectations. If you looked up “stereotypical Jewish mother” in the dictionary, Flora’s picture would be beside the definition.

Christopher “Kit” Gill (James Hansen), however, has it worse. His late mother, Alexandra (Abrams again), was a great theatrical star. Her son, as she keeps reminding him from beyond the grave, is not. Whether this is torment-by-specter or simply the result of years of disdain, Kit casts himself in his greatest role to date: serial killer. If he can’t achieve fame by trodding the boards, by God, he’ll do it by strangling a series of older women and getting his crimes covered by the New York Times.

Here you may be thinking: That’s an odd premise for a musical. But remember that “Sweeney Todd” and “Assassins” involve, respectively, recycling murder victims into meat pies and killing presidents. One can make a musical about almost anything, and in “No Way To Treat a Lady,” composer-lyricist and book writer Douglas J. Cohen did.

The four-actor, multicharacter show has been done before in South Florida, first in the 1992-93 season by the Pope Theatre (which later became Florida Stage), then by the Coconut Grove Playhouse in the 1997-98 season. Both productions were nominated for best musical Carbonell Awards, both lost, and both theaters are now out of business — a coincidence, to be sure, but worth noting.

Based on a novel by Oscar-winning screenwriter William J. Goldman, “No Way To Treat a Lady” is set in the summer of 1970, as both the temperature and Kit’s body count soar. Mo, a man gone soft from too much of Flora’s cooking, wouldn’t mind a taste of fame himself, and once Kit begins a publicity-seeking cat-and-mouse game with Mo, cop and killer are racing towards the Times front page.

One arguably improbable wrinkle develops when Sarah Stone (Andrea Arvanigian), a beautiful young woman who works at an art gallery, falls for the schlubby detective. Their romance and his rise to renown are often at odds, and anyone who has ever seen a comic thriller (or any thriller, for that matter) knows that Mo’s climactic showdown with Kit will somehow involve Sarah.

Part of the fun for two of the show’s actors is that they get to show off their versatility by slipping from one identity to the next. Hansen’s Kit is a psycho and a bad actor — not an easy combo — but in disguise Kit presents himself as an Irish priest, a Spanish dance instructor, a utility worker, a gallery employee and others. His Kit is a kind of one-man Village People.

Abrams gets to play both of the nagging mothers and the various murder victims. Director Peter J. Loewy seems to have given her a key note — “go over the top” — for most of the gals, but many of the real older ladies in the audience find it a hoot when Abrams hits the stratosphere.

Cohen’s score boasts solos, duets, trios and quartets, and Loewy has cast actors who sing it well under Ben Bagby’s musical direction (the instrumental accompaniment is recorded). Arvanigian is especially beguiling as Sarah, a clever woman who goes against every bit of Mo’s advice yet wins his mother over, anyway.

The costumes, credited to Carousel Theatrical, are character-appropriate and, with a series of big wigs, give Abrams’ overbearing moms and varied victims different looks. Ardean Landhuis designed the lighting, and the set (says the program) is “based on an original design by Sean McClelland,” though it resembles several sets stuck together rather than that designer’s admirable and cohesive work.

“No Way To Treat a Lady” is small-scale musical fluff. But as the receptive Stage Door audience would attest, sometimes that’s exactly what you want from an afternoon or evening of theater.

“No Way To Treat a Lady” runs through May 28 at the Stage Door Theatre, 8036 W. Sample Road, in Margate. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, and 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday-Sunday. Tickets cost $38 and $42. To order, call 954-344-7765 or go to StageDoorTheatre.com.

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