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‘A Killer Party’ Review: The Case of the Online Musical

I used to have high standards for new musicals. Relevance, craft and a reason for being were traits I looked for but often found lacking. Now that we’re in lockdown, I’m just happy to see talented people working on anything that doesn’t actively make me wish they weren’t.

That’s a low bar, but by not aiming much higher “A Killer Party: A Murder Mystery Musical” handily clears it. The first three of its nine short episodes, now available to purchase on demand with the rest arriving soon, show it to be cheerful and slapdash and silly enough to compensate for an almost total lack of coherence.

But maybe the lack of coherence is what makes it so cheerful. Online pandemic mystery theater — amazingly, there is already another example, in Andrew Barth Feldman’s “Broadway Whodunit” — is an unlikely medium with no best-practices guidebook yet. Any new musical more ambitious than this goofy lark featuring jaunty tunes and appealing Broadway performers like Laura Osnes and Alex Newell would likely sink at once.

Which is a nice way of saying that the book, by Kait Kerrigan and Rachel Axler, is not the star here. A spoof of backstage comedies and Agatha Christie-style mysteries, it mostly exists, like an aluminum Christmas tree, as a way of displaying a few wacky ornaments as quickly and cheaply (and safely) as possible.

The first episode is centered on one such ornament, Varthur McArthur (Michael James Scott), a puffed-up former Broadway child actor who played Gavroche in “Les Misérables” until his voice tragically changed. Now he lords it over an amateur theater group in Duluth, Minn., six of whose members sit down to dinner at his “killer party,” each bearing a ridiculous name and a motive to kill him.

Do not worry yourself trying to understand the plot, in which McArthur, too, has written a silly musical, this one called “Circus Steamboat Murder — Death on the High Seas Trapeze.” The party guests, having each been assigned a role in that show, arrive suitably if rudimentarily costumed for it. Not to give you a headache, but here’s an example: Osnes plays Vivika Orsonwelles, the troupe’s “former leading lady,” cast in “Circus Steamboat Murder” as a clown.

Or perhaps you’d enjoy knowing that Newell plays Shea Crescendo, who despite being a production designer plays the role of the acrobat Rosetta Stone. I do not know what Rosetta — or Shea, or Newell — is dressed as, but it involves feathers.

I hope and believe this is meant to be impenetrable, because there are still four other characters seated virtually at the dinner table, each at least as confusing. I won’t offer a complete flow chart, but they are Lily Wright, “the new leading lady” (Krystina Alabado); Clark Staples, the stage manager (Miguel Cervantes); Cameron Mitchelljohn, a perpetual chorus boy (Drew Gehling); and George Murderer — yes Murderer — the troupe’s leading man (Jarrod Spector).

It’s a lot to push through in the seven-minute first episode, and that’s not even counting Carolee Carmello, in a framing device, as a Duluth detective writing her memoirs years later. Those memoirs are the musical we’re watching; apparently, she needed an editor.

But in the next two episodes, with the spinach largely out of the way, we get some dessert. Immediately as the second installment begins we are introduced to Justine Case, the younger version of Carmello’s character, who has been taken off meter maid duty to investigate the murder. Singing a more-or-less traditional “I Want” number — called “Today’s Detective” and built on the apt phrase “my own ticket outta here” — Justine (Jessica Keenan Wynn) springs to life, and “A Killer Party” begins to feel like a real musical.

The songs (to be released as a cast album on Aug. 21) help a great deal throughout. With their peppy, synth-filled pop (by Jason Howland) and smart, hooky lyrics (by Nathan Tysen), they impose order on the wayward plot by forcing at least some moments into familiar boxes. The forms — not just the “I Want” song but the charm song, the predicament song, the title song and others — deliver emotional information that rings true even if the situations do not.

Which is not such a new thing after all. Musicals from before the Golden Age, and even some we think of as full Golden (“The Pajama Game,” I’m looking at you) were rarely very coherent; if a song was worth it, the authors would jam it into the story any which way. (Newell’s number in the third episode should come with a shoehorn alert, but it’s fabulous.) An appealing entertainer could just appear as himself if need be — as Jeremy Jordan apparently does in later episodes. During the Depression, you did not need much plot justification to be entertained by entertainment.

You may not need much during a pandemic either, and “A Killer Party,” directed remotely but with verve by Marc Bruni, winks broadly at its limitations. The choreography (by Sarah O’Gleby) makes fun of the fact that it is necessarily rudimentary. So do Bobby Pearce’s closet-treasure costumes. And when Detective Case has the six suspects “self-isolate” for interviews in separate rooms of Varthur’s house, they are actually, of course, rooms in each actor’s. If you ever wanted to know what Laura Osnes’s bed looks like, or what Jarrod Spector wears in the tub, now, for just $12.99, you can.

A Killer Party: A Murder Mystery
New episodes through Aug. 19. Series streaming through Nov. 1; akillerpartymusical.com.

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