University Productions pokes fun at the melodramatic nature of murder mysteries with its latest play, “The Tavern.”

Paul Wong
Lefkowitz (top) schemes in “”The Tavern.””<br><br>Courtesy of University Productions

This satirical look at murder on a dark, stormy night comes to the Mendelssohn Theatre stage starting Tomorrow.

The script revolves around a vagabond, who enters a tavern to escape the storm and finds himself a suspect in a murder. “The Tavern” also features a cast of stereotyped characters, from the mysterious woman to the tavern wench in love with the owner”s son.

“There”s something very apparently theatrical about this play and about the silliness of it,” said Prof. Philip Kerr, the show”s director.

Composer George M. Cohan of “You”re a Grand Old Flag,” “Give My Regards to Broadway” and “Yankee Doodle Boy” fame penned the play, one of his few non-musical works. Cohan, who was involved in some 230 shows during his lifetime, directed, wrote and eventually took over acting the role of the vagabond in “The Tavern.”

The production”s Vaudevillian style has its roots in Cohan”s legacy. Along with the stylized characters, “The Tavern” features sound effects visible to the audience. A wind machine and thunder sheet sit on the fringes of the set and create the storm effects.

In addition to the effects, the script, direction and acting hinge together well, said Josh Lefkowitz, a junior Theater student who portrays the vagabond. The overall effect keeps the production moving at a fast pace and preserves audience interest, he said.

“It”s so super-charged and fast and furious,” Lefkowitz said.

The cohesive nature of “The Tavern” demonstrates Cohan”s ability to find what works on stage, Kerr said. The actors primarily stayed true to Cohan”s production, but Kerr also offered them creative freedom to experiment with their own comic ideas.

“I”ve given them a bit of leeway to find their own rhythm,” Kerr said.

This openness made the rehearsal process for “The Tavern” very enjoyable and stress-free, Lefkowitz said.

“You throw all your problems at the door at the beginning of rehearsal and pick them up again at the end if you want or just forget you ever had them,” he said. “What more could you ask for as an actor than being given a license to play?”

The actors also worked hard to learn to perform in the Vaudeville style of Cohan”s work, said Christina Reynolds, a junior Theater student who portrays the tavern wench. She said it was important to find a balance between having fun as a cast and concentrating on the acting.

“You have to surrender yourself to some big choices and not go too far and get dragged off by the acting police,” she said.

This performance also will add to the history of “The Tavern” at the University, where the show once experienced a significant revival, Kerr said. The show debuted on Broadway in 1920 but gradually had lost its high profile. Ellis Rabb, director of the University-sponsored Association of Producing Artists, rediscovered the play in 1962 and brought it back to the stage and national attention.

“I think it”s sort of a hidden treasure of theater,” Kerr said.

“The Tavern” offers audiences not only an opportunity to see a little-known piece of theater but also a chance to see a show that”s pure entertainment, Kerr added.

“I think the fun is infectious,” he said of the show. “It”s a little pre-Valentine in the dead of Michigan winter.”

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