By Alyssa Gautieri
A fictional crew from an amateur theater took the stage with intentions of putting on a creative and quirky version of Stephen Schwartz’s “Wicked: The Musical,” which they called “Wiccan.” This motley crew of actors is also known for their other, ripped-off play productions, including “The Llama King,” “The Wizard of Bras” and “Larry Poppins.” However, after a murder was committed on stage, the production came to a halt and turned into an unforgettable murder mystery.
On Friday, Feb. 26, and Saturday, Feb. 27, the Lion’s Den food court was brought to life by All College Theater (ACT), Lion’s Late Night and a local Italian eatery, Palermo’s I, for the College’s annual murder mystery dinner and show.
The production sold out both nights nearly 10 minutes after doors opened. According to lead actress and freshman women’s and gender studies major Molly Knapp, who played Winnifred, no one expected the show to sell out so quickly.
“I was thrilled with how our opening night went,” Knapp said after Friday evening’s performance.
In the murder mystery, when the town’s mayor, Chad (who also took on the role of The Wizard, portrayed by senior political science major Sam Waxenbaum), was shot during rehearsal two days before opening night, the crew went back and forth blaming each other for the murder.
Saffron, played by senior graphic design major Alyssa Hess, along with the other characters, interrogated the audience members about whether or not they killed Chad. The student-actors were dedicated to their roles and refused to break character.
“Um, hi, I’m sorry to bother you,” Hess said as she approached a table of students. “But did you kill Chad?”
According to Hess, the production is half-scripted and the other half is the actors trying to make things up as they go along.
“I’m in an improv group (the College’s The Mixed Signals), so for me, I feel comfortable (improvising),” she said.
Junior communication studies major Brooke Buonauro and junior journalism major Jonathan Edmondson took on the roles of writers and directors for “Wiccan.”
“We find it flattering (when the cast improvs) because we feel like we wrote characters that have so much to offer for the actors,” Buonauro said.
With 11 actors on stage at once, the cast performed a lot of background acting to try to make the performance more realistic for the audience. The actors were able to add their own personal spin on the character they portrayed.
“It was awesome to work with (Jonathan and Brooke), figuring out their vision and taking it that step further,” Knapp said.
According to Hess, the interrogation scene, during which the cast fields questions from the live audience, was entirely improvised by the cast.
“You have to trust that you know your character and how they would deal with things,” Hess said.
Despite Knapp’s abundance of acting experience, she had little experience with improvisation. For her, staying in character served as more of a challenge.
“(Alyssa will) just whisper little asides to me and it makes me break (character) every time,” Knapp said about the interrogation scene. “The whole cast is hilarious.”
Each night, there are different clues leading the audience to believe that the murderer may be any one of a host of characters, however, at the end of the show, the murderer is always the same.
“I got accused a bunch of times by audience members and it’s really funny,” Hess said. “I just play along.”
Buonauro and Edmondson shared what it was like to write the script together and work with the cast.
“(The cast was) really eager and willing to try new things,” Edmondson said. “They brought the show alive in so many ways.”
Of the 11 main cast members, seven of them were freshmen. Aside from the main staff, there was also a list of eight extras, who each took on specific characters while integrating also the audience.
During one scene in particular, the main cast invited extras on stage to audition for a role in “Wiccan,” which allowed the extras a chance to improv and bring a unconventional element to the show.
“The idea (of being an extra in ‘Wiccan’) appeals to me because it is a lot more involved and thematic than a conventional show,” said senior interactive multimedia major Vincent Giacalone, who performed as an extra. “It’s a show that spreads out beyond the stage.”
Flyers that pictured the “Wicked” logo remade into “Wiccan” have been spread around campus for weeks. But why “Wicked?” The storyline of the original musical had little to do with the murder mystery that was performed.
“We wanted to play with the idea of a show that they couldn’t put on in this theater because it is still running on Broadway” Buonauro said. “So we thought, why not choose the most popular, iconic show right now?”
Edmondson and Buonauro, both involved in TCNJ Musical Theater and ACT, have participated in the College’s murder mysteries since their freshman year.
“Even people that aren’t theatre people, they still know ‘Wicked’ and probably some of the songs,” Edmondson said.
According to the duo, scripting came easily.
“We are best friends so it was really easy to work together,” Buonauro said.
The chemistry between the cast and the writers was visibly seen by the audience. With improv, it is essential that the cast and writers have a connection and are able to play off of each other’s ideas.
“I feel blessed to have gotten the opportunity to work with a group of such incredible performers and people,” Knapp said.