There are worse ways to kill an evening than at a musical about a serial killer. In Meadow Brook Theatre's production of Douglas J. Cohen's No Way to Treat a Lady, murder is, well, sort of funny. This show's musical numbers are attractive, and the jokes, if not original, feel comfortingly familiar. Morris "Moe" Brummel is a middle-aged cop living with his mother, Flora, in New York City. He is hot on the trail of a serial murderer who leaves his victims with his calling card: a lipstick kiss to the forehead and a challenge to the detective. While interviewing Sarah Stone, a neighbor of the first victim, Moe falls for her, as she does for him. When the killer, Christopher Gill, makes known his intention to kill her, it's a race to see whether the good guy can get the girl before the bad guy lays a killer smooch on her. "That's no way to treat a lady," Moe says. In this show, there is a deep-seated sadomasochist subtext, and Moe wants to show how macho he is. It's a point of fun that Moe's mother is such a nag as to be a likely candidate for mayhem or at least a musical number about intransigent sons. Neither happens.
Moe and Christopher have a duet from their respective homes on either side of the stage called I Need a Life, in which each sings of his desire to trade obscurity for notoriety, or in the killer's case, the front page of The New York Times. You see, he has a mother too, and, though she is dead, her full-length portrait still taunts him about being a failure as an actor. (If any of this sounds familiar, the 1968 film with Rod Steiger and George Segal, without music and lyrics, was a modest hit.) This is a play with perfect symmetry: a cop, a killer and two moms, not to mention a love interest and many opportunities to burst into song. Most of Cohen's music is unmemorable, so director John Manfredi has wisely chosen his cast based on vocal prowess if you are serving your guests leftovers for dinner, haul out the best china. Alan Ball is the likable cop; Andrew Huff plays the murderer; Jennifer Joan Joy is the love interest; and the remainder of the roles, including the two mothers and each of the victims, are played by Kate Willinger Manfredi. Ball's voice is smooth and pitch-perfect; Huff is adroitly murderous; Joy is a joy her second act solo is a model of leading lady dimensions and Kate Willinger Manfredi, well, she earns a paragraph of her own.
Manfredi is an attractive blonde who has been gracing the stages around southeastern Michigan for a half-dozen years or more. Her métier is vocalizing, but she has a keen sense of humor and a pretty face, a great combination for a chanteuse. As Flora, she is a swell drudge; as each of the victims and the other mother she brings a unique quality to each character. Just looking at her life-size portrait as the killer's mother, as her son does, frequently, you see that she has an amused, impish smile that says, "I'm having fun. Care to join me?"
The set by Peter W. Hicks manages to both mock and revere the play's period, the 1970s, with eight or 10 flat paintings that mimic pop art in bold primary colors. Offstage, four musicians pound away at keyboards, bass and percussion, just jauntily enough for this show. Lady won't knock Sweeney Todd or The Threepenny Opera those more famous murderous musicals off their pedestals, but it spends its talents wisely and entertainingly.
8 p.m., Wednesday-Saturday, with additional 2 p.m. performances on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday through Jan. 29 at Meadow Brook Theatre, 207 Wilson Hall, Oakland University campus, Rochester; 248-377-3300.Michael H. Margolin writes about theater and performing arts for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or call