This production was scheduled January 26-March 16, 2024.

For a number of reasons, the first production of The Great American Melodrama’s 2024 season more than lives up to the troupe’s name.

First off, everyone in the know knows everyone heads to the Oceano theatre to spend a Great evening: You see a fun show, enjoy an entertaining vaudeville review after the show, sing along to at least one tried-and-true song, celebrate a birthday or anniversary during intermission with family and friends (or fellow audience members), and share popcorn, hot dogs, hummus, and/or a pitcher.

Second, the current Melodrama playbill fulfills season kick-off expectations, especially if you are looking for an excuse to observe everyone’s favorite February holiday. While the headliner’s title, Grave Mistakes, might suggest something more than a little menacing, its subtitle, “A Haunted Romantic Comedy,” sets the stage for a funny-but-not-too-frightening two-act love story that gets a little help from a couple of not-very-scary ghosts who don’t mind playing Cupid.

The two love birds in need of Cupid’s arrows are an author (Melodrama newcomer Casiena Raether, a real sweetheart) and an editor (Melodrama mainstay Jeff Salsbury, never better) who work together in an attic office that also houses the aforementioned spirits. Director Eric Hoit couldn’t ask for better casting than Billy Breed and Dori Duke as the two spectres who can’t seem to agree on anything, let alone the best way to play Cupid. They are joined by castmates Julia Mae Abrams (a real hoot), Mike Fiore (playing quite a believable jerk against his usual good guy image), and Toby Tropper (low key but all in)—each working in true madcap Melodrama style to help or hinder the pursuit of true love.

Abbott has constructed a winning show, giving us fun characters to root for, goofy (but very satisfying) plot twists, and of course the requisite happy ending.”

What makes this quirky story really special, however, is the fact that it was written by the Central Coast’s own Ben Abbott, an actor and playwright who started performing at the Melodrama in 2006. Weaving words and plot together into an audience-pleasing one-and-three-quarters-of-an-hour play is no small feat, and the type of shows that work for theatres like the Melodrama are especially difficult to engineer—they require an ear for clever dialog, an understanding of physical comedy, and a sympathy for what actors and directors need from a script in order to connect with audiences.

With Grave Mistakes, Abbott has constructed a winning show, giving us fun characters to root for, goofy (but very satisfying) plot twists, and of course the requisite happy ending. Opening weekend revealed a couple of places where the show can still be tightened up, but that’s something that Abbott and Hoit and the great Melodrama troupers are sure to fix. Kudos to scenic designer Ian Peggs for a well-appointed set and to lighting designer Cody Soper and stage managers Julie Ewert and Nathan Miklas who orchestrate some spooky goings-on.

But wait, there’s more! The third-act “Whatever the Weather We’ll Weather the Weather Together” is one of the best vaudeville reviews offered to Melodrama audiences in some time. Every song works, thanks to direction and choreography by Johnny Keating (and tap choreographer Sydni Ramirez), costumes by Renee VanNiel, and musical direction by the versatile Brad Carroll. We are treated to highly entertaining renditions of weather-related tunes such as “Singing in the Rain,” “Snow,” and a truly hilarious “Windy.” But the award for most appreciated—and most unexpected—production number of the evening goes to Billy Breed and company’s rendition of “It’s Raining Men.”

To top off the evening, Keating sends the crowd off happily into the night with a rousing “Let the Sunshine In.” He and Carroll, along with Jordan Richardson, have created a cheeky and charming addition to the Melodrama catalog.

:: Charlotte Alexander