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"Dial M' rings true despite cast change

Apparently, actor R.J. "Rocco" Abbey takes the old theater dictum "break a leg" seriously.

Three hours before Thursday's final dress rehearsal for Richey Suncoast Theatre's current offering, Dial M for Murder, Abbey, who was set to play Inspector Hubbard in the classic thriller, took a tumble at home and tore several ligaments in his leg. Doctors ordered bed rest _ "Don't get up, even with crutches" _ for the next few weeks.

Dial M for Murder is the story of tennis star-turned-salesman Tony Wendice's plot to murder his wife, Margot, partly out of jealousy over her affair with murder mystery writer Max Halliday and partly out of fear that Margot will leave him for Halliday and take her millions with her. Inspector Hubbard plays a pivotal role in unraveling the murder plot.

Director Bruce Blaine scrambled for a substitute for Abbey and finally pressed veteran actor and box office manager Ray Kenney into the role of Hubbard at the last minute.

It was an inspired move.

Despite having to tote a script around with him, Kenney acquitted himself exceptionally well on opening night. Even during a couple of awkward pauses when he had to find his place, Kenney made the script seem like the kind of notebook a Scotland Yard detective would carry around and consult during the course of a regular investigation. His movements around the stage were natural and flowing. Faltering steps looked like the moves of any person working in a strange place or suddenly thinking of an item that needed examination across the room.

His tweed jacket, careful diction and tall, slender frame give him the air of a cerebral Sherlock Holmes, an appropriate look for an English detective.

Kenney was aided enormously by the fine preparation and execution of his fellow actors: veterans Dawn R. Dugle as Margot Wendice, at first coolly confident, then completely bewildered by her predicament; Norm Augustinus as her former lover, Max Halliday; an animated Chadd Thomas as Tony Wendice, Margot's gold-digging, scheming husband; and Bruce LeBaron as a jittery and reluctant murderer for hire.

A classy, solid set by Blaine, Casey Who and Gwenyth Braun _ one of the most substantial ever on the Richey Suncoast stage _ gives a convincing backdrop to the action and adds credibility to what is happening.

Of course, Frederick Knott's riveting script and the twists and turns of the plot go far to keep an audience's attention, even during the pauses caused by the inclusion of a last-minute pinch-hitter.

The few flaws in this production are mostly cosmetic and easily remedied _ a slamming door that doesn't sound a like a slamming door, a blue suitcase that should be tucked away after it has served its purpose, curtains that need to be weighted down so they won't billow in front of a "closed" door, stuff like that.

That said, Dial M is chock full of good characterizations and directed with a fine, firm hand that knows what it is doing. At a tad over two hours, it's a quick, challenging and fun way to spend an evening.

A bonus is getting to see that "show must go on" attitude in full bloom.