Photo by Gersh Kuntzman
The Park Slope Food Coop may seem like heaven for the hyper liberal Brooklyn hipsters among us. Just ask Gersh Kuntzman, longtime coop member and book writer of the satirical mystery musical Murder at the Food Coop, which parodies the sort of people you might find prowling the aisles and what they might do when their overbearing corporate leader turns up dead in the freezer.
Kuntzman's musical features lyrics and score by Marc Dinkin and is directed by Eric Oleson. Its large ensemble of characters comprise everyone from Jews and Palestinians to Elvis-inspired garbageman Johnny Endive, though the inclusion of a non-socioeconomically privileged coop worker in the opening number is only a brief, token appearance. But regardless of race, intelligence or place on the political spectrum from liberal to communist, Murder at the Food Coop is happy to make fun of everyone—without becoming mean.
For all its absurdities, the musical functions largely as a standard murder mystery; we establish a cast of characters, someone turns up dead, a detective arrives on the scene and secrets start pouring out until we find the one that matters. Of course the phallically obsessed Detective Dick Johnson has a romantic history with the victim as well, and he isn't the only one with conflicting intentions. There are debates about monetizing the coop, which political causes to support and even a particularly enthusiastic new couple contaminating all the produce with their exploits, any of which could be the motive behind the murder.
While its attempts to embrace a diversity of perspectives are admirable, Murder at the Food Coop suffers from too large a cast of characters, preventing most from getting more than one musical number's worth of attention. The few standout performances come from those actors whose characters remain relevant throughout, such as Doug Chitel's bumbling but highly self-aware Detective Johnson, Brittany Shaffer as eager upstart journalist Jackie and Brian A. Mason's eternally cool and composed composter Johnny Endive.
Likewise, while most of the music is catchy but not terribly remarkable, the best songs in this production come toward the end, once the remaining collection of characters has narrowed. Shaffer's enthusiastic and charming renditions of "(Do It With) Buttons" and "I'll Make a Liberal Socialist Whack Job Outta You Yet" can only be matched by the following number, celebrating, of course, the merits of pot. And some moments of satire in the musical are absolutely spot on, such as the insistence upon calling a committee to debate calling 911 when the body is found and providing a sign language interpreter for the meeting, or the constant refrain advertising organic earthworm condoms, though much of the humor is simple and generic.
The ending of Murder at the Food Coop is confusing, both the actual solving of the murder and what happens afterward. Departing from the satirical yet still largely naturalistic style of the rest of the piece, the final song raises more questions than it answers. But while this musical has a great deal going against it, including a non-air conditioned theater and copious microphone issues, it is still a joy to watch, its occasional moments of startling insight brightening up a largely lighthearted, fun musical. It may leave you with the depressing realization that it is impossible to be fully responsible for where your food comes from, but hey, a little perspective is good for everyone.
Murder at the Food Coop plays at the Clemente through August 25 as part of the New York International Fringe Festival.