Fringe Dinner Theater will perform “Murder in the Key of Motown” at Hal & Mal’s on July 31, Cool Water Catering and Events Aug. 12, Biaggi’s Ristorante Italiano August 18 and Rossini Cucina Italiana Aug. 28.
Three wigged, sequin-covered women emerge from behind a curtain, followed by two men in green pantsuits. One of the men, lead singer of Jack Russell and the Terriers, introduces himself and his posse, his ego inflated more than his afro. The three female background singers vye for his attention, which leads to a sing-off and the beginning of animosity among the Terriers.
Mississippi Murder Mysteries, Jackson's oldest mystery dinner theater company, has been in business for more than 10 years. The crew met at Black Rose Theatre in Brandon (103 Black St., Brandon, 601-825, and when the murder mystery troupe there disbanded, they formed their own. Part of that club branched off to form Fringe Dinner Theater, which debuted with a production of "Murder in the Key of Motown" at Rossini Cucina Italiana June 3, and the troupe will perform the play throughout the summer at other venues.
The production is also the group's first musical. Tommy Kobeck plays lead singer Jack Russell, or J.R. His "terriers" (background singers) include Walt Herrington as Gabe Marvin, Wendie Sheppard as Patty Vandell, Alahna Stewart as Delia Ross and playwright Becky Martin as Rhetta James. "Not only do I get to write characters, I get to be one," Martin says.
The off-key band sings and dances through the plot of "Murder in the Key of Motown," donning retro outfits, bell-bottoms and bee-hive wigs, that transition into '80s garb of fishnet and platinum blonde locks during a brief intermission. Each of the characters has a motive by the time the murder actually takes place, ranging from jealousy to shady business deals.
Martin chose classic songs for the score such as Marvin Gaye's "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and Smokey Robinson's "Cruisin'," prompting the audience to sing along and get involved in the story. The audience even gets to vote for the best female back-up singer. Most of the story is told through arguments about how the band should operate, beginning with an alumni fundraiser and ending at the wake of one character.
Fringe Dinner Theater split off from the original company because the players wanted to create a more "real, interactive" experience with elements like musicals and costume contests. The group will add religious and Broadway productions to its repertoire over time.
Everyone in the troupe sees acting as a second profession. For Martin, writing and acting is a way to escape from the everyday. "We have day jobs but we love the opportunity to do dinner theater," Martin says.
Fringe makes appearances at a variety of local businesses that serve as its performance venues. "We don't have a theater we call our own; we are a traveling group," Martin says. "We like to partner with the area's best restaurants to offer fine dining and entertainment."
Upcoming performances of "Murder in the Key of Motown" are at Hal & Mal's (200 S. Commerce St., 601-948-0888) July 31 and Cool Water Catering and Events (1011 Lake Harbour Drive, Ridgeland, 601-919-7622) Aug. 12, Biaggi's Ristorante Italiano (970 Highland Colony Parkway, Ridgeland, 601-354-6600) with an additional performance at Rossini Cucina Italiana (207 Jackson St., Ridgeland, 601-856-9696) Aug. 28. Tickets are $48 for the Hal & Mal's show, $48.50 for the Biaggi's show, and $49 for the Cool Water and Rossini show. For more information, visit missmurdermystery.com or find the organization on Facebook.