A Case of Murder
nytheatre.com review by Debbie Hoodiman
May 7, 2005
Every once in a while, someone comes up with a idea that is zany enough that I feel, upon hearing about it, compelled out of curiosity to see it. A musical version of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment? Good example of what I’m talking about.
A Case of Murder, written and composed by Robert Montgomery, is indeed a modernized, musical version of the famous Russian novel about a man who commits two atrocious murders, one planned and one spontaneous, and the detective who suspects but can’t quite prove his guilt. Montgomery’s play is set in New York City in modern times, and the murders take place on Avenue D on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Porfiry (Brian McCormick) is a homicide detective straight out of NYPD Blue, and he has a hard-nosed female partner, Cutter (Rachel Valdati), with whom he frequently disagrees.
Because Montgomery’s modernization allows him to change the story a little, he plausibly sets up two murder suspects: a Russian painter who was in the apartment building when the murders took place, and a down-and-out, highly-intelligent ex-student. Even though I knew from the book who probably committed the murders, I enjoyed a sense of suspense at intermission and even overheard one theatre-goer remark, “I have to stay —to find out who did it.”
The music, played live by accompanist Jeremy Fenn-Smith, seems to draw from a Rent aesthetic with its rock & roll style and gospel-influenced vocals, though it is not of that caliber by any means. I enjoyed the split-scenes, when characters with related story lines sing musically-related parts of a song, simultaneously or over-lapping. I also enjoyed the sometimes campy “dialogue put to music,” when, for instance, Porfiry interviews the character Koch, one of the first witnesses/suspects. All of the singers are strong, but Valdati and McCormick stand out—especially Valdati.
Where the book’s central theme is the killer’s frustration and guilt, to the point that he has to turn himself in due to the pressure of his own psyche, the play—which centers on the detective Porfiry more than on the suspects—explores a variety of subjects in addition to the detectives’ hunt for the killer. Porfiry unexpectedly finds love early in the play, while the killer’s love is what in the end redeems him and forces him to confess. There is also a religious theme: the Russian painter Nicolai is a member of “Fools for Christ,” a religious sect; Catherine, a nun, questions her vow of chastity but not of charity; and Angelina, a prostitute and drug user, is redeemed unexpectedly (think Mary Magdelene) by Lucas, the student, who is the other murder suspect.
All of the actors do a fine job with their parts, with Valdati and McCormick leading the pack. McCormick’s Porfiry is right on the mark, mixing NYPD toughness with the tenderness that comes with finding love. Valdati’s Cutter is tough, tired, and straightforward, and Valdati demonstrates comedic timing and honesty as an actor. Maggie Low, as Catherine, is compassionate and gentle as well as wise towards the hardened characters in the plays world. Rich Hollman’s Nickolai is charming, with a nice voice and good dance moves. Judy Jerome, as Angelina, has a nice soprano voice and acts properly downtrodden and loving. Brian Seibert, as Zack, who puts the detectives on the track of his friend Lucas, appropriately fits the part. Dean Goldman, as Koch, successfully develops his secondary story line. Nic Tyler is perfectly believable as Lucas.
Though the play is imperfect—sometimes the music is strange and sometimes the singing is campy—it is enjoyable and interesting overall for its suspense, execution, and exploration of the redemption of love, religion, and other themes that appear in Dostoevsky’s novel.