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Cat and the Canary Review

Blue Dahlia flowers for Halloween

Blue Dahlia/Cat and the Canary review
Performed at the Howmet Theater, Whitehall, MI
Bill Iddings/Muskegon Chronicle

WHITEHALL— Here’s how spousal musicians Derek Menchinger and Leslie Boughton celebrated their 12th wedding anniversary Oct. 30: They played here with the three other members of their quintet, Blue Dahlia, at Howmet Playhouse.

Now the perennial tricks have been played, the annual treats have been handed out. Jack-o’-lanterns — whose inner candles died on the night of the living dead — lay smashed upon empty pavements and abandoned porches. Cracked out of their gourds, their pumpkin smiles leer, opened in mocking grins of broken skulls. So, Halloween 2008 has straddled its witches’ broomstick and flown on October winds into November, back to the dark mysteries of the Undiscovered Country for another year.

In Whitehall, though, something lingers in the recesses of 92-year-old Howmet Playhouse, a historic venue itself just risen from the grave. They are the ghosts of notes, and of strange filmmakers long dead, all exhumed by the sweet dark magic of Blue Dahlia.

Summoned northwest from Kalamazoo by local promoter Rich Houtteman, Blue Dahia — named for a 1946 film noir — pulled a Frankenstein on this autumn night before All Hallow’s Eve. Blue Dahlia resurrected “The Cat and the Canary,” a classic, silent horror movie melodrama released in 1927, from the crypt of bygone time. It breathed new life into a corpse. In Blue Dahlia’s hands, instruments and voices, “The Cat and the Canary” played fresh to the eerie exhilaration of a new tune. Stanley in “The Cat and the Canary.”

This might not be merely a unique way to embrace contemporary sounds of silents. How about the only way to fully experience a silent movie? Boughton’s haunting voice, often harmonizing with Cara Lieurance, told tales written on screen as snippets of dialogue and narration. Joining an eclectic mix were jazz vamps enhanced by Levi Strickland and particularly percussionist Carolyn Koebel. Reggae rifts whispered that Marley’s ghost — Bob’s, not Jacob’s — could be lurking in the same shadows as another specter that gripped the dark old house on screen.

No longer moldering in archival vaults and faded memories, Blue Dahlia’s “The Cat and the Canary” became everything old as new again. Before an audience that filled less than one-quarter of Howmet’s 400 seats, Blue Dahlia’s original music turned “The Cat and the Canary,” into a whole different movie. What alchemy is this?

“The Cat and the Canary”originated as a 1922 Broadway play, a black comedy written by John Willard. The first of five film versions was a triumph of period moviemaking, with special effects that superimposed images. One of the most striking is at the beginning, where a dissolute and troubled Cyrus West, a reclusive millionaire pressured to the verge of insanity, is dwarfed by giant cats and bottles.

Twenty years after West’s death, his heirs come to his imposing mansion, for a midnight reading of his will. Laura La Plante is underlit in terror as heiress annabelle West in “The cat and the Canary.” Each hopes to be the sole heir of Cyrus West. When the beautiful Annabelle West (played by Laura La Plante) is named, her safety is far from certain. The old, dark house is rumored to be haunted. An escaped lunatic is somewhere on the estate’s grounds, or even … inside! Whoa, Lookit the time. What a divine evening. Well, gotta go. Oh, taxi.

Brought to West Michigan with the help of a grant from — God bless ’em — the Michigan Humanities Council, Blue Dahlia opened the evening by playing two instrumentals.nerd whose other affiliations include the Celtic-music band Whisky Before Breakfast, introduced. After commenting of La Plante “She’s got a really cute haircut,” Lieurance joined her band mates in bringing German Expressionist director Paul Leni’s creation into the 21st century.

With original music, Blue Dahlia enhances “The Cat and the Canary” to accentuate all its comic aspects. Ominous corridors, hallways and staircases lightened up. The modern sound extends to effects: Door knocks, wind blowing, Aunt Susan’s nose honking, automotive troubles, a slide whistle that heralds one male character literally getting a rise out of the very mention of Annabelle’s name. When a clock that hasn’t struck for two decades chimes midnight, sinister matters are at hand. flickr.comA doomed attorney, Tully Marshall, gets a good look at claws instead of a clause. The maniac or monster or whatever that thing is shows up with bugged eyes; a saber-toothed underbite that could take years of extreme orthodontia and cost millions of lives; and a claw that, of all things, creeps over the headboard of a bed to cop a feel. Horny little devil, eh, what?

The title of “The Cat and the Canary” is a metaphor and multiple entendre. It refers to the torment Cyrus felt from his greedy relatives, Annabelle’s perils as she tries to hold on to her sanity, and the grisly fashion in which a homicidal maniac tears apart victims. Blue Dahlia turns all this into the surprise comic hit of the season.

Among the more endearing characters is the ill-named Mammy Pleasant (Martha Mattox), a stern, wide-eyed old biddy of a housekeeper with hair bunned up as tight as her face. For one of the funniest pickup lines in history, it’s hard to top the Lothario who comes to a young ladies bedroom and says, “I feel sociable tonight — May I come in?” Guys like that deserve what they get: Stuck under a bed, with the rump of their suit pants snagged on a broken spring. “The Cat and the Canary,” accompanied by Blue Dahlia, revived a day when dead bodies somehow put out their hands to break their falls, and murdered lawyers kept getting misplaced.

Blue Dahlia followed “The Cat and Canary” screening with a musical encore. It deserves a lot more of them around here.

One suggestion is that the Muskegon Film Festival, which several years ago rejected an opportunity for Blue Dahlia to accompany a Buster Keaton movie at the Frauenthal Theater, come to its senses. Blue Dahlia has a passion for Keaton films. Keaton as a boy summered in Muskegon. The annual fall convention of the Damfinos: International Buster Keaton Society is held in Muskegon every October. Get it?

By the way, Laura La Plante really does have a cute haircut.