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The People Vs. Mona

A remarkably talented cast makes the most of this benign musical murder mystery. logo
Mariand Torres, Ritt Henn & Jason Chimonides
in The People Vs. Mona
(© Sam Rudy Media Relations)
In lesser hands, The People Vs. Mona, the new musical mystery by Jim Wann and Patricia Miller, could be a trial to sit through. Watching this pocket-sized musical, I had visions of future community theater productions populated with folks who will make the script's deliberately corny and purposely lame jokes sound even less funny and who won't be able to do vocal justice (whoops, another pun!) to the few solid tunes scattered throughout these benign 90 minutes.

Luckily, for those who can catch the show during its current run at the Abingdon Theatre, director Kate Middleton has assembled a remarkably talented cast. They're so good, in fact, they manage to make even some of the most ersatz material shine as brightly as a 24-carat rhinestone.

The featherweight plot concerns the trial of Mona Mae Katt (the absolutely enchanting Mariand Torres), owner of a south Georgia juke joint called the Frog Pad (nicely designed by Travis McHale), who is accused of murdering her husband on their wedding night. Handling Mona -- not to mention her defense -- is the town's yet-to-win-a-case, nice-guy attorney Jim Summerford (Richard Binder). Meanwhile, not-so-nice prosecuting attorney -- and Jim's fiancée -- Mavis Frye (Karen Culp) would like nothing more than to see Mona locked up for life. Oh yeah, she also wants to be the town's new mayor and put a floating casino where the Frog Pond currently sits.

The plotting -- including the surprise answer to whodunit -- is only slightly less ingenious than your average Law & Order episode. But it has a lot more laughs. Many of the biggest guffaws come from Omri Scheim, a physically adept actor who shines in four roles, including coroner (and local dentist) Dr. Bloodweather, 96-year-old "legendary litigator" Euple R. Pugh, and Patel, owner of the local Santa Claus Hotel.

The handsome and strong-voiced David Jon Wilson also gets his share of chuckles as seeming good guy Officer Bell, who nonetheless holds a grudge that the deceased wouldn't let him record his turn as Curly in Oklahoma!. Binder is thoroughly appealing and Culp, perhaps the show's weakest singer, paints her character with the appropriate brush.

Meanwhile, the musical's vocal standouts are cabaret favorite Natalie Douglas, who sadly isn't given enough to sing in her main role as Judge Ella Jordan but finally gets to let loose in Act II as the Reverend Rosetta Purify in "You Done Forget Your Bible," and the sultry Marcie Henderson, who has great fun with a pair of fairly silly numbers, "The Big Meow" and "Blind Willy." Kudos as well to onstage band members Ritt Henn, Jason Chimonides, and Dan Bailey.

Unfortunately, like 99 percent of all current Off-Broadway musicals, the songs in The People Vs. Mona will evaporate within 10 minutes of leaving the theater; the only one that slightly lingers is Mona's ballad "Lockdown Blues." Seeing the show on the same day as the sublime City Center revival of Gypsy, as I did, goes a long way to making the case that they really don't write them like they used to.

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