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‘Murder & Moonbeams’ Musical Transitions to the Silver Screen

Noir side of the moon

Cast of Murder & Moonbeams
From left: Liza Ortiz, Bo White and Molly J. Brown on the set of ‘Murder & Moonbeams.’ (Photo by Jake Yount)

Inspector Pierro is having a very weird night, and it’s only going to get stranger. 

The gruesome murder of singer Lily Des Moines is all over the news; a client, Des Moines’ sister Pilar, arrives, convinced the police are behind her sister’s slaying. Pierro takes the case. What choice did he have? The down-at-his-heels detective is literally washed up, struggling to keep his business afloat by moonlighting as a dry cleaner downstairs. 

Lily’s fate reminds the increasingly forgetful Pierro of the grisly killing of another young woman two years ago. He launches into a pensive gypsy jazz-inflected tune that describes the crime scene: “So, there we were, apartment 13/ No superstition, just a crime scene/ I looked at her/ And asked for a light/ She was a beauty/ So was the kitchen knife/ Jabbed in her eye/ Private investigators don’t cry…” 

As the case unfolds, Pierro gets more and more distracted, confused and muddled by moonlight. Instead of finding a neat solution, the moonstruck detective descends into madness.

Murder & Moonbeams, a macabre black comedy musical, debuted at Petra’s in 2019. Created by musician, playwright, songwriter and former educator Molly J. Brown for her company, A Beautiful Day in Hell Productions, the dinner theatre experience featured cuisine by chef and producer Julia Simon. The show satisfied discerning audiences with an appetite for delicious vegan cuisine and relatable yet outré entertainment. 

Brown says she had been hankering to take on the chiaroscuro feel and rainswept mood of film noir for some time.

“I love the aesthetic of noir [even though] I couldn’t name you an actual noir movie I’ve seen,” she says. “I like the grittiness and the smokiness of [the genre]. Some of my favorite renditions of [jazz standard] ‘Round Midnight’ have this noir feel.”

If you missed the show, performed by a talented cast headed by musician/actors Bo White (Patois Counselors) and Liza Ortiz (Chócala), you can check out a full-length video of the show, shot by filmmaker Krizia Maria Torres, or you can attend the upcoming premiere of a new and expanded version of Murder & Moonbeams, an independent feature film directed by Torres and adapted from Brown’s original musical, scheduled for Dec. 29 at Petra’s. The evening is rounded out with live performances by Blue Dunes, one of tuba player and trombonist Brown’s many past-and-present Charlotte-area bands, and Zodiac Lovers.

To the moon & beyond

Two years in the making, the film retains stars White and Ortiz. It is a change of pace for Brown, who has served as creator, playwright and songsmith for three previous fringe theatre productions staged at Charlotte venues including Snug Harbor and Petra’s. Brown’s previous shows, featuring her original tunes, have aimed satirical barbs at America’s ever renewing self-improvement industry, as well as pop culture sci-fi favorites Predator and Star Trek

Murder & Moonbeams also tweaks genre conventions — the murdered singer is dubbed the White Lily, Brown’s nod to the 1947 Black Dahlia murder case that inspired a handful of neo-noirs — by taking a decidedly darker turn. As the murders mount into a string of serial killings, each clue Pierro stumbles across is distorted by the ever-present moon, flooding Pierro’s mind with unnatural thoughts. A trip to an absinthe bar doesn’t help either. 

Until now, Brown has never returned to rework any of her previous properties. Instead, she’s poured her energies into each project, so she can move on to the next.

”If I don’t do the thing that’s in my head, it just stays with me,” Brown says. “I have to get it out so I can come up with a new thing.”

That approach to her work had to change this time around, Brown offers, because filming the reboot of Murder & Moonbeams brought new creative elements to the table.

“A stipulation from Bo was that [the film] had to feel different than the play, because the play went so well,” Brown says. 

She wrote extra scenes for the film version, including one inside the absinthe bar. 

“The film version gets to leave the stage and take place all around Charlotte,” says Torres. “We follow Detective Pierro as he haphazardly wanders in and out of familiar places looking for clues.” 

Torres, who designed the noir-style poster that was reworked into the cover of Queen City Nerve’s Dec. 14 issue, promises surprise cameos from other local musicians and says visual artists like Paige Reitterer and Taylor Knox produced original artwork featured in the film. 

A man in business clothes dances in front of a Charlotte mural under moonlight
Inspector Pierro, played by Bo White, in the film adaptation of ‘Murders & Moonbeams.’ (Photo by Krizia Maria Torres)

“Pierro even unknowingly gives us a tour of some of Charlotte’s public art murals,” Torres adds. 

A further artistic touch was unplanned. Shot partly outdoors during the COVID-19 pandemic, the film has no synchronized sound. Dialogue has been looped and dubbed-in during post-production.

“It’s a creative decision I made mostly out of necessity,” Torres says. “It also serves as a slight nod to early filmmaking.”

Despite being firmly placed in the film noir tradition, Murder & Moonbeams also includes the kind of absurdist elements that characterized other productions from A Beautiful Day in Hell. Detective Pierro is loosely inspired by Pierro Lunaire, the protagonist of a melodrama by Austrian-American composer Arnold Schoenberg, presented as 21 selected verse pieces by Belgian symbolist poet Albert Giraud. The work is written for a reciter who delivers the poems in an atonal vocal style called Sprechstimme.

A headshot of a woman against a brick wall
Liza Ortiz as Pilar in ‘Murder & Moonbeams.’ (Photo by Krizia Maria Torres)

“Pierro Lunaire goes back to my classical music upbringing,” Brown says. “There’s this tragic clown figure who gets increasingly intoxicated by the moon.” 

If you are a student of music or had to suffer through a music appreciation class, Brown says, you had to learn about Schoenberg’s atonal song cycle.

Brown insists she’s no fan of atonal music and Sprechstimme. Instead, her takeaway from Pierro Lunaire is that she likes the idea of the moon slowly driving a character insane. 

“I wanted to do something with this tragic figure,” Brown says. “The question arose, how does this tie into a murder mystery? How can I make this tragic for the detective investigating murders?” 

Brown’s answer to this question dictates the climax of both stage and film versions of Murder & Moonbeams. It is both devastating and thoroughly in keeping with a noir sensibility.

Life coach to moonstruck shamus

Growing up in Anchorage, Alaska, Brown says she was not academically ambitious. She was inspired, however, by music. Enthralled by the way musicians can captivate people, Brown started playing trombone in 6th grade and picked up tuba the following year.

In high school, even as she shot videos and wrote a screenplay for a school project, she earned a reputation as a class cut-up and trouble maker. In 2004, she earned a bachelor’s degree in Music Performance and Education at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Nevertheless, she felt stifled in Anchorage.

She decamped for Bellingham, Washington, and earned a Master’s in Music Performance from Western Washington University in one year. As part of her major, Brown performed ensemble work at the university. 

“I would volunteer to be in the opera. I did summer stock. I always have a hard time turning down the gigs,” Brown says.

As a result, she became extremely burnt out. Then came her fateful meeting with the woman who inspired Frannie.

“I was broke as a joke … in a college town where there weren’t too many jobs. So, I ended up working for the life coach,” Brown remembers. “She refused to learn how to use the computer. So, [for] the bulk of my day, she would read her emails over my shoulder, start barking out a response to each email, and I would type it up.” 

Brown soon realized that her employer was a bully to everyone, Brown included.

“She was very tight-fisted with her own money, but if people couldn’t afford her tuition she’d [say], ‘The money will come to you if you manifest it,’” Brown says. “These poor people who didn’t have a strong personality like her, she just bulldozed them.” 

In 2006, Brown left the life coach behind and drove with her then-boyfriend from the Pacific Northwest to the opposite end of the country: North Carolina.

To make ends meet, Brown took on teaching jobs, eventually landing at Queens University, where she developed a class for general education students that looked at jazz history through the lens of race, migration and identity. Another class she developed surveyed western music history through the lens of gender and sexuality.

Brown continued her practice of saying yes to too many music gigs, playing tuba or trombone with Seth Bolton and the Dream Machine; Bruce Hazel; Benji Hughes; The Houstons; Buschovski, featuring one of her favorite songwriters, Todd Busch; and Brent Bagwell’s Ten-Speed Orchestra.

Brown also formed jazz trio The Fat Face Band. She currently plays with The Mike Strauss Band and Blue Dunes, a duo with guitarist Troy Coon.

Many of Brown’s music connections came to her aid when she recruited talent for Frannie’s Feel-Good Farm — a fringe theatre musical she wrote that was inspired by her experience with the life coach — which debuted at Snug Harbor in 2016 and was reprised for the BOOM arts and performance festival in 2019. The show is suitably outlandish and apocalyptic, with Frannie introducing her group of acolytes to the motivational speaker from hell.

“Looking back, it’s a very flat show,” Brown says. “It was a proto-musical/rock opera [with] some good tunes. Where it was lacking was the story and the dialogue — the thing that makes a show a musical.” 

In 2017, Brown brought a new wrinkle to the fringe musical experience, teaming up with her friend and then-neighbor chef Julia Simon to produce a unique vegan dinner musical experience.

“The beauty of dinner theatre is you put food in front of people and they sit down and they’re quiet — they’re not talking over my show,” Brown says “I can have a captive audience where I put on my show, and people can sit and enjoy it and actually hear the jokes and laugh.”

Ironically, the vegan menu complemented a show where a key character is one of pop culture’s most notorious meat-eaters. Predator: The Musical, a loose parody of the 1987 movie Predator, went up at Petra’s and was so successful the show was restaged at the venue in 2018.

A scene from 'Predator: The Musical.'
A scene from ‘Predator: The Musical.’ (Photo by Nick McOwen)

Committed to the idea that her shows should feature flawed female protagonists, Brown decided that the predator should be female. Casey Livingston, who played the Predator, was also pregnant during the first production, so Brown made the creature pregnant, too.

“Even when I’m writing a parody, I like to keep cracking it open and see how far we can distort the original,” Brown says. “The idea of a female predator was funny to me. That lends itself to comedy and character development. Maybe she’s just picking off all these guys because she’s a mom and she’s got to feed her kids.” 

Brown was also pregnant during the first run of Predator

In 2019, Brown and Simon returned with another sci-fi parody, tackling the trekker universe with St4r Tr3k: The Conway Maneuver. The numbers in the title are included to ward-off Paramount’s litigation-happy legal department, Brown says.

“One of the reasons Julia and I first became friends was because we both love Star Trek,” Brown says. “I wanted to set [the show] in that universe but have entirely unique characters.” 

The adaptations

More recently, while working on Moonbeams, Brown has been inspired to also revisit and reshape Frannie’s Feel-Good Farm

“With Frannie, I had a really good story, and I wasn’t doing it the way I wanted to do it. I wanted it be bigger,” Brown says.

In 2021, she applied for and received an Arts and Science Council Emerging Creators Fellowship grant that enabled her to expand the initial stage production into a full-length film with a bigger cast. The grant allowed Brown to hire Haley Nelson, a freelance writing coach, so she could script what will be her largest musical production to date. She received a follow-up Artist Support Grant in 2022 to record a cast album, which was tracked at White’s home studio.

The Frannie’s Feel-Good Farm film is still a work in progress for Brown, but for the time being, she’s focused on moon-muddled detective Pierro’s cinematic debut at Petra’s.

During these years, Brown’s life has gone through some changes. She started dating fellow musician David Kim in 2008. The couple got married in 2017, and had their baby in 2018. She stepped away from teaching at the end of 2020.

“Despite teaching full-time at a private liberal arts university, I realized I was just slowly going broke,” Brown says. 

For the first time in her professional life, Brown is no longer in education. Instead, she’s working on instructional design for a small business. She is also contemplating the next step for her completed full-length musical version of Frannie’s Feel-Good Farm. The production is far too big for A Beautiful Day in Hell, and she hopes a local theatre company would be enticed to take on the project and collaborate with her on the show. 

Last August, Brown and her family moved from Charlotte to Elkin, but she comes back to the Queen City frequently and is looking forward to the screening of Murder & Moonbeams. Although Brown has been actively involved in the film’s production, she insists that the film is very much the result of the input and vision of director Torres and her crew, aided by White’s inspired sound design.

Torres hopes the screening audience will be swept up in the project’s off-beat outlook.

“I hope they have a good time and think back on it fondly as one weird night,” she says. 

 Brown hopes the film entertains and surprises. 

“I don’t think you can see the ending coming,” she says. “I want people to like the songs and walk away with the sense that this was something different; something sincere.”

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