Theatre, music collaborating for unique night of entertainment

February 10, 2011

PLAINVIEW – “Musical Mayhem” may not be the classiest of titles for Wayland Baptist University’s upcoming theatre production, but according to Dr. Marti Runnels, it’s the most accurate.

As theatre director and professor of theatre at Wayland, Runnels said the merging of various genres, lots of humor and even some improvisation makes for a unique production that is really hard to describe.

“This is a musical of sorts in that there is music in it. It’s also a murder mystery of sorts, and there is an audience participation element to it that provides information for the improvisation,” said Runnels. “Some members of the audience may even end up appearing on stage – willingly of course.”

Runnels said the production, which he wrote over Wayland’s Christmas holiday break, contains a loose script that holds the framework of the production. That’s where the murder mystery comes in. The detective – played by WBU junior Corben Waters of Bovina – is writing a musical in his spare time and is auditioning actors and singers for his composition. During the event, a mystery ensues that he must solve, and the entire piece takes on a 1940s film noir feel.

Laughingly, Runnels said the production might have audiences scratching their heads at times wondering what is the reality and what is fantasy… but they’ll be having so much fun during the event that they won’t even worry about which is which.

“There will be moments in the show where people say, ‘Say what? Where am I?’ And just about the time you think you know what’s going on, the show Part of that turn comes with each rehearsal as there is an improvisational element to the show that allows Runnels’ actors to really shine. Some of that – and the nature of the creative piece – means there will be huge surprises in the show in terms of the bizarre way things happen during the evening.

Runnels said the piece held appeal for a few different reasons. For one, it allows Wayland student performers in both music and theatre a chance to participate in a show that is unlike anything ever done on campus or perhaps even in the region. The piece makes for a perfect collaboration between musical theatre and traditional theatre departments with some traditional music thrown in as well. There’s even some choreography, making for another piece to the collaborative puzzle.

The idea for the murder mystery really came to Runnels while dreaming up an improvisational show with music and other elements and needing a thread to tie it all together.

“I needed to give my students some sort of framework to stay within, but the show can be different every night, depending on the audience,” he said. “Ultimately it will all come together in the end and people will have a lot of fun… just not the kind of fun people normally are used to having in the theatre.”

The production features musical numbers from existing productions, such as “Chicago,” “City of Angels” and some others. Some will be instantly familiar to audiences, and all will figure into the storyline. Runnels said the improv will be reminiscent of the popular TV show “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” and the show will even feature a cutting of Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew” and a few routines from the Johnny Carson show.

Runnels said the productions have brought together the talents of several music students and help in honing those numbers from Brian Kuhnert, visiting assistant professor of music and director of opera. Dr. Richard Fountain, assistant professor of collaborative piano, is serving as accompanist for rehearsals and for the performances.

In addition, he tapped the talents of Kristen Jones, Wayland’s new cheer and dance coach, for some choreography in the show. Technical theatre director Steven Wood has also risen to the occasion with a set that is versatile enough to accommodate the show and still carry out the film noir theme.

All told, the production will feature several dozen students, with some providing instrumental specials during the intermission and in the show, some acting, some singing and some doing all of the above.

From an educational standpoint, the production benefits students as they are able to hone their talents for improvisation, which make them quite marketable in the acting world. While some students have found a natural talent for the art, some have taken longer to develop those skills.

“A lot of directors in film and stage work improvisationally, so students need to have that skill in their bag of tricks,” Runnels said.

He said the show has been tougher to rehearse than “traditional” theatre pieces because of the improvisational aspects, but they’ve been able to hone the framework and the wrap-up that will make the show come together in the end. The students, he said, have loved the freedom of the piece and are looking forward to involving audiences in a new way once the production opens.

“Musical Mayhem” will take the Harral Studio Theatre stage on Feb. 24, 25 and 26 at 8 p.m., with a 2 p.m. matinee on Feb. 27. Tickets are $8 for adults, $4 for students and $4 for Wayland alumni in conjunction with homecoming weekend. The show will also be repeated the evening of Monday, Feb. 28 as part of the Christian University Theatre Festival being hosted at Wayland.

Patrons are warned that gunshot noises will ring out in the theatre during the production for those who may have sensitivity to that.

Reservations can be made by calling the School of Fine Arts at 291-1060.