The Mystery Train – 5 stars

The Mystery Train is the best murder mystery dinner theatre that I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a lot. The experience takes place every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evening at one of two downtown restaurants: Californos and the Golden Ox.

You enter a private room with dinner tables and take a seat, imagining yourself boarding a train. The theatre troupe puts on a variety of shows and the one I got to see was Magical Murdery Tour, set in the 1950s. While there was no set design or decoration, the cast of 4 actors engaged us directly, immersing us in the experience. They explained that we were there to solve a mystery, and they even invited members of the audience to take a role in the scripted show. The mystery involves a Beatles tribute band touring the country riding on the success of the British band. Who will commit the murder, the nasty band manager (Erik J. Pratt), the moronic drummer (Trevor Tournear), or the easily frustrated guitarist (Josh Morrow)?

We could not have had a better time interacting with the actors who visited our table. You can ask them questions to try to untangle the mystery, and even offer them a bribe with fake cash given to you as part of the event. We laughed uproariously at the strange situations that the actors were put into, both from the script and from interacting with the audience, and of course we cheered on the fellow audience members brave enough to stand up and take a role. Stealing a peek through the actors’ belongings is part of the fun and a major way to discover new clues. I had a try at pickpocketing and discovered that I am bad at it. The actor, my target, tried to pickpocket me back and we ended up going in circles around one another, groping wildly for pockets while being cheered on.

It was possible to find a few flaws in the show. The scenes weren’t blocked out, and the tension didn’t build as time went on from courtesy to open anger. Instead the play hit the top early on. I’m not sure what the point was of having a conductor (Nikki Susco-Taylor) who took no role in the dialogue, and it became quickly an old joke for an Elvis impersonator (played by one of the audience members) to only speak in song titles. The script was repetitive, perhaps to help the audience follow the clues, but this might have been better done by giving the audience some pauses to take in and process what they had learned. Instead there was no let up in the flood of information coming in, and we ate as quickly as we could during the breaks to eat each course of the dinner. The murder mystery might have been a touch too complicated: I was personally given three pages of clues to read and 20 pages of the larger script with my own part in the play highlighted. But I was also given a fun costume to wear and plenty of encouragement, even when I missed one of my cues.

None of that made a dent in my wanting to give a 5-star rating, because the intrigue itself was so fun, and because the show was partially improvised, making it similar to improv comedy, where you don’t expect perfect acting, but rather an experience where it’s just as fun to watch the actors as their characters. The audience was entirely caught up in talking amongst themselves, grilling the actors, and even getting up and visiting the other tables to share ideas or bribe each other with fake money. This is a difficult genre and the Mystery Train performed superbly. The actors had to balance staying in character (not obviously giving us clue hints to make it too easy) with guiding the amateur audience in the right direction (to not make it frustratingly hard), over and over throughout the night and handled it superbly. They fielded dozens of crazy theory questions without breaking character and often improvising a comedic twist.

Diners at our Californos Restaurant location had the option of steak, chicken, or fish. The food was excellent, and although the portions were small, they came perfectly presented and I didn’t mind the size because they came with chips, salad, and dessert.

I have a confession to make: usually I don’t bother trying to solve a murder mystery. I’m too used to “clever” authors making the plot so convoluted that it’s impossible, so I’ve long since given up trying. For example, Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express has a bizarre and self-indulgently artistic trick ending that I doubt any reader could possibly have solved. However, at the Mystery Train they seemed to actually expect the audience to figure it out, and by the end at least a third of us had. The show ended with an award for one of the solvers and a raspberry award for the worst detective theory.

I’ve reviewed the other two murder mystery dinners, and am glad to tell you that the Mystery Train is the best murder mystery dinner in the Kansas City area. It outpaced its (still fun!) competitor, The Dinner Detective (4 stars), and far outshone The Murder Mystery Company (2.5 stars).

You owe it to yourself to check out what might be the most unique and laugh-out-loud experience you can find in Kansas City, especially if you’re part of a large group! I am delighted to give the Mystery Train 5 stars. While the Magical Murdery Tour show is now over, you can board the train for Murder on the Ornament Express, November 14 to January 3.

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