Knowledge is power—too bad for the guests of Elsa von Grossenknueten, it’s in short supply. Something is coming for 10 characters as they try to figure out who the killer is in their midst—but can they catch them before the killer strikes again?
Come find out if the killer is caught while learning about the quirky characters that interact through the twists and turns at Westwood High School as Westwood Theatre Company presents, “The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940” April 6-8.
Jeana Whitaker, theater director at Westwood High School and director of “The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940,” said she chose this production because the script is hysterical.
“It’s very witty, it’s very clever, it’s really well-written and every time I read it, I find something new in it and it makes me laugh out loud…we were due for a good comedy,” she said since the theater department performed the drama ‘The Crucible’ last fall (2016). “The writing itself is really clever, they use a lot of alliteration, similes, metaphors, a lot of very colorful language and it’s fast-paced. Some of it is some very dry humor.”
The play is based off “The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940,” written by John Bishop that premiered in 1987. The story—which brings the audience into 10 characters’ lives for a night as they all join at the home of a character named Elsa under the impression they are auditioning for a musical comedy. However, the tables are turned as Elsa wants to find out who killed her best friend, someone called the Stage Door Slasher. Whitaker said while the actors were on tour the last time they were together; a series of murders were committed by the Stage Door Slasher and they were never caught. Through trying to catch them, Whitaker said the group finds out there’s another killer in the house they weren’t looking for.
Whitaker’s take of the production? She described it as: “unexpected twist-turning hilarity.”
“It’s one of those fun murder-mystery comedies where you never know which direction it’s going, never know who the actual killer is, and then when you think you know, you find out it’s not them, it’s somebody else,” Whitaker said.
Contrary to the name of the play—it’s not a comedy—an aspect Whitaker said she enjoys about “The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940”: “To me that’s part of the wittiness of it, from the get-go, the title of the play, you think you’re going to get one thing and you don’t, you get something totally different.”
The production is full of twists and turns—and eccentric characters that bring the script to life.
Westwood High School junior Becca Hansman plays Elsa.
“I’ve never been an actor in a comedy, so that is what attracted me most to the show,” Hansman said. “Particularly, I wanted to be Elsa because I’ve never played any role that has been significantly older than I’ve been.”
Hansman said Elsa is kind of the grandma of the story, and is the one who invites people to come to her house so she can find out who killed her friend.
“Being able to play a grandma is stretching my limits as an actor and she has such a strong personality, that it’s really fun to play with her little quirks that she has and the things that make her unique and set her apart as a character,” Hansman said.
As someone who loves adventure and spontaneity, Hansman said she thinks Elsa possesses these characteristics as well, which has helped her identify with the role.
“One of Elsa’s lines is ‘This is going to be a grand adventure, isn’t it?’ and I really love adventure and spontaneity and I think Elsa really also adores that and it’s a big part of her life, which I think is the way we connect most.”
Sophomore Justin Stinnett plays O’Reilly, a character who speaks in three accents—Irish, Italian and German.
“O’Reilly has many different personalities. They all still have that serious side but at the same time have the funny side, I can connect with that,” Stinnett said.
Whitaker said the basics for her when directing actors, especially for high school students, is helping them identify the objectives and tactics of the characters.
“Beyond that I like to focus on the relationships between the characters, because a lot of times, young actors will focus just on their character and how their character reacts,” Whitaker explained. “But if they understand the intricacies of the relationships between the characters—it’s going to change a lot about how they act and react with each other.”
Hansman added she liked the small size of the cast and felt they have become a close-knit family. “It really is resembled in our interactions on stage because this is a show that is based off that slap-stick humor and then the interactions between people.”
Speaking of humor, Stinnett mentioned his goal when acting is to entertain—which he plans to do through O’Reilly’s lines that have made his castmates laugh.
“I’m looking (forward) to being able to entertain and hearing the laughter of the audience although I probably won’t be able to see them (because of the lights), but I love getting reactions from people,” Stinnett said of performing the show. “This being my first show, I can say I’m the youngest and least experienced… So, when I get laughter out of the cast members and Ms. Whitaker and the stage crew, I feel good.”
Whitaker said one of the reasons she was attracted to the play was because it was a small-cast production since she is used to working on large-scale productions with big casts.
“Another thing that interested me about this one was the set—it has all these hidden panels and doors that they jump in and out of. I thought it would be really fun and challenging for my tech kids to build that kind of set.”
They were up to the challenge. The set has taken a little over two months to build from inception to completion and features a sliding bookcase, rotating fireplace and other moving parts that allow the actors to interact more actively with their environment.
After casting, preparation and rehearsals, when it comes to performing the show, Whitaker said she hopes people walk away laughing and have a great time after viewing their performance. She hopes “(The audience) goes home going, ‘Do you remember that line?’ because that means they were really engaged in the comedy itself.”
See Westwood Theatre Company’s production of “The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940,” April 6 and 7 at 7 p.m. and April 8 at 3 p.m. at Westwood High School, Westwood Shepherd Auditorium, 945 W. Rio Salado Pkwy. in Mesa.
Tickets: $7 pre-sale, $10 at the door, $5 for children under 12 and seniors 55 and up.
For tickets, call 480-472-4410.