BATAVIA – “The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940,” the next show by Batavia High School students, is neither a musical nor a drama. Playing Feb. 1 to 3, it’s a comic romp reliant on quicksilver timing and an elaborate set that accommodates plenty of mayhem and the performers’ aim to misdirect audience members and keep them guessing.
Director Joshua Casburn said the winter production is traditionally performed in the black box theater at the Batavia Fine Arts Centre on campus, but the show’s set requirements precipitated using the main stage. More space was needed to construct a mansion’s hidden passageways, so students have been building a bigger black box, and will move the audience right onto the main stage as well. Seating will accommodate 140, who will be in the thick of the action.
“Three secret passageways open up in different ways – it makes for quite a technical achievement,” Casburn said. “The timing of everything must be rapid-fire and perfectly executed, if it’s going to be funny and successful.”
Senior Max Micheli said he plays Eddie McCuen, a struggling comedian who is trying to make it in Hollywood and on Broadway.
“I get a call … to come to a backer’s audition where you show off the play or a musical [to a potential investor],” Micheli said. “They get a little taste of it and decide. Eddie goes to this mansion and he starts rehearsing for the musical and learning some of the lines and all these mysterious murders start happening around him.”
Micheli said the stress has Eddie cracking jokes mostly at inappropriate times. “I really love comedy,” he said. “I have done a lot of shows [and] had a lot of fun in them.”
He said he appreciates the play’s take on masking one’s identity. “In everyday life, everybody is essentially acting … or putting on a different kind of face with everyone they interact with,” he said. “That holds true for this show. On the inside, Eddie is a normal guy trying to make it [to] the American dream. On the outside, he’s trying to put on a more confident air and come off as this big shot comedian.”
Casburn said the play also lays bare the disconcerting similarities between getting away with murder and putting on a theatrical production when it comes to what to hide and what to reveal.
Senior Emily Smith said she plays Elsa Von Grossenknueten, the wealthy and eccentric host, whose disconnect with reality has her thinking the rising body count is all part of an amusing murder mystery game.
Smith said she’ll be racing through the passageways during the show, in part to accommodate her 10 costume changes. Because of the unusual stage seating for patrons, she said audience members will enter from backstage and gain a rare view of a different side of the theater.
“The timing has been something we rehearsed a lot,” Smith said of the fast-paced action. “I’m just excited to take the audience on the journey with us [through] the twists and turns and have them try to keep up.”
With the plot set in 1940, Casburn said the stylish apparel draws on the 1930s and is provided by All Dressed Up Costumes in Batavia. Students did research on the era to prepare for the production and also had to take on an unusual added role.
Because the fictional actors are rehearsing a musical at the mansion, the comedy includes a couple songs, but the show does not provide music for the lyrics. The tunes are left up to each theater company.
At BHS, they were composed by students.
“Everybody who does the show [has] to decide how they’re going to approach doing the music,” Casburn said. “We have some talented musicians in our cast. Once I realized how talented they were, I asked them to write the music and play the piano for it.”
Casburn said he has wanted to do a murder mystery comedy for a while, noting the directors at BHS alternate types of shows to give students broader experience. “We keep challenging the students with new and unexpected opportunities,” he said.
The 10-person cast features sophomores Sophie Chahmirzadi and Maisie Sweeney, juniors Cate Rocha and Isaac Schifferer and seniors Brandon Belair, Max Micheli, Emily Smith, Natalie Sweeney, Meghan Tucker and Abigail Weiss. Understudies are Anika Thoresen, Hannah Curran, Conall Haldeman, Landon Keller and Kate Domeier.
If you go
WHAT: “The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940”
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 1 to 3, and 2 p.m. Feb. 3
WHERE: Batavia Fine Arts Centre, 1399 W. Wilson St., Batavia
COST: $12 online and $14 by call and at the box office
INFO: BataviaFineArtsCentre.org, 630-937-8930