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first ave playhouseATLANTIC HIGHLANDS, NJ – “Rehearsal for Murder,” a mystery with a surprise ending that keeps you absorbed throughout, is on stage at the First Avenue Playhouse this month, with a matinee performance on Sunday, March 15, at 2:30 PM.

Written by Richard Levinson and William Link, and directed by Joe Farella, the well-done and near perfect performances of a cast of nearly a dozen actors of all ages, captivate the audience with charm, clever one-liners and a bit of laughter while keeping them wondering until the very last minutes of the production who is the real murderer of a leading lady and fiancée of playwright Alex Dennison.

Rob Sullivan, a writer himself of short plays which he has produced across the continent, is a natural as playwright Denison, and a master at perfecting his expressions, movements and timing in a play where his monologues and presentations are flawless.  Coupled with Gina Shuster, who portrays the murdered leading lady, Monica Welles, who later reappears in flashbacks to her living self, is captivating, charming, and sultry where necessary. She and Sullivan make a great team, dead and alive.

The story focuses on Welles being found dead of an apparent suicide after her less than perfect Broadway stage debut and Dennison’s conviction that his beloved couldn’t have done herself in.  So he gathers his cast and crew on the one year anniversary of her death to read a new play he tells them he is working on, one that depicts the mystery death of a famous actress.  With so many similarities to his fiancée’s own mysterious death, Dennison admits he is actually searching for the real killer.  Reactions vary; alibis are investigated, outside sources are retained, and the fun continues until the surprise conclusion.

Setting for the play in this comfortable and cozy dessert theater with tables so close to the stage you can shake hands with the cast, is simply ideal for the play - an empty Broadway stage with minor adjustments, lots of chairs, and ample room for actors to portray their talents and emotions.

Talent and emotion is reflected in the entire cast, including from teenager Danielle Pecchioli, mature far beyond her years and an acting major at Ocean County Vocation School’s Performing Arts Academy.  As the youngest in the cast, Pecchioli carried off her role as Dennison’s secretary with élan. There is the promise of a future career on stage.

Ernie, the stage hand is charmingly portrayed by Emily Mangiavillano who was also at the Playhouse for “Don’t Drink the Water” and hopefully will be back many more times.

Also back at the First Avenue theater is Bob Mira, this time playing Lloyd Andres, along with Antje Weymann,  who’s also been on several other stages in Monmouth County.  Newcomers who have already become part of the First Avenue playhouse with their rapport and ease with their fellow cast members are: Althea Nava from both the Woodbridge and Main Street theater companies, Leon Weyhnecht, James Wrona and Vince Tinebra, all of whom have extensive acting and or design and directing experience at other venues.

For those who have known or appreciated his talents over the decades, Joe Bagnole has led the First Avenue First Avenue Playhouse, and continues to be an outstanding executive producer with a first class touch.

The play is charming, exciting, downright fun, and worth a Friday or Saturday night. Or even the one Sunday matinee on March 15.  Call (732) 291-7552 for reservations in March before this wonderful cast leaves the stage to make room for April’s production, Beau Jest. 

First Avenue Playhouse is located at 123 First Avenue, Atlantic Highlands.