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Murder mystery — and a meal

Arts at the Ridge includes ‘Deadpan’ dinner theater performances

January 22, 2012
By JOE SUTTER, Messenger staff writer , Messenger News

Stop out to Willow Ridge Restaurant later this week and you may find yourself transported back in time to the ritziest nightclub of 1936. There'll be a 13-piece orchestra to provide atmosphere, and wait staff serving grilled endive and chicken legs stuffed with pistachios and sausage.

Then there'll be a murder, and that's when things get interesting.

That's the experience playwright Kevin Kelleher is hoping to create with his new dinner theater production, "Deadpan."

Article Photos

-Messenger photo by Joe Sutter
From left, Jane Bunting, Robin Corsberg, Abby Enabnit, Sean Coughlin, Deven Kolluri, Will Schnurr and Joe Whaley rehearse a scene from the upcoming production of “Deadpan” at Iowa Central Community College. The performance will be at Willow Ridge Restaurant starting Thursday.

"Everyone is a character in this play. The conductor of the orchestra is a character, the real waiters play the waiters in the club, the audience plays the part of the club's audience," Kelleher said. "You walk into the year 1936."

Kelleher, an Iowa Central Community College alum, said this is the second year he's undertaken a dinner theater at Willow Ridge. Last year's production was called "The Madrigal Dinner."

"Last time, we sold out all the nights before we even started the first night," he said.

Fact Box

If you go:

Arts at the Ridge

MAIN EVENT: "Deadpan," dinner theater murder mystery/musical comedy

WHERE: Willow Ridge Restaurant, Fort Dodge

WHEN: Thursday through Saturday and Feb. 2-4; Thursday, Friday, Saturday, 5:30 p.m.; Saturday matinee, 11:30 a.m.

TICKETS: $35 for nightly shows, $25 for Saturday matinees. Call 576-5711 for reservations. Price includes both admission and three-course dinner.

OTHER EVENTS: Throughout the week: Daily free clinics at Iowa Central; nightly theater/arts events at Willow Ridge

Free workshops at Iowa Central: Monday, vocal performance, 11:30 a.m.; Tuesday, acting, 10 a.m.; Wednesday, songwriting, 12:45 p.m.

Events at Willow Ridge: Sunday, art expose, 4-7 p.m.; Monday, improv, 6-8 p.m.; Tuesday, artists @ the Mic, 6-8 p.m.; Wednesday, cabaret, 6-8 p.m.

French food served from 5:30-9 p.m. Monday through Wednesday at Willow Ridge.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Call 1(800)?362-2793, ext. 1293, or visit

Because of the high response, this year's show will have twice as many performances, he said. Still, Kelleher expects that they may sell out again.

"Deadpan" was written, scored and directed by Kelleher. It features both community members and professional actors from New York. Iowa Central culinary students will provide the meal, and the orchestra will be directed by Ben Wheeler, of New York.

"This is the biggest project I've ever attempted," Kelleher said. "There's way more music than last year; orchestrating all the parts has been a challenge. Also with the script, a murder mystery has to be clever and funny. It has to be intellectual; smart people have to like it, be amused by it and hopefully be surprised by it."

About writing a musical-comedy murder mystery, Kelleher said, "As an artist, I often like to challenge myself with the goal of producing a work that is just like another, classic form - yet better. I want audiences to feel an intense familiarity with what they're seeing, but to be wholly unable to place where that sense is coming from, since they're also being bombarded with something that is concurrently new and cutting edge."

The show will run for six nights total, with two matinee shows. It will run Jan 26-28, and Feb 2-4. Nightly shows will be at 5:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays; matinees will be Saturdays at 11:30 a.m.

In the week between the show's runs, there will be free acting and singing workshops during the day at Iowa Central, and theater/arts presentations in the evening at Willow Creek, in what is being called, Arts at the Ridge.

"We'll have one night of improvisation," Kelleher said. "We'll have a spoken word performance one night, and I believe Deven is giving a monologue one night, which will be very exciting."

Actor Deven Kolluri, who will not be giving a monologue at all, groaned in protest. The other events are actually a night of Musical Theater Cabaret, and a visual arts open house. A complete schedule can be found on Kelleher's website,

The Iowa Central culinary students will sell French food during the events Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights from 5:30 to 9 p.m.

The dinner theater presentation is part of an effort to bring more arts events to Fort Dodge, according to Chef Michael Hirst, who teaches the culinary school at Iowa Central.

"Myself and Neale Adams (dean of the Business and Industrial Tech departments) started brainstorming, we wanted to do some events that Fort Dodge needed, or didn't have," said Hirst. "We did a dueling pianos event, and that sold out. We actually had to turn people away."

Hirst said he met Kelleher while working on the movie "Farmer" here in Iowa. Hirst was doing the catering for the movie, and Kelleher wrote the soundtrack.

"We sat down and tried to think, what kind of theater could we bring to Fort Dodge?"

They decided to do a dinner theater, to see if the community liked it.

"It sold out in two weeks," Hirst said of last year's performance. "Then we opened up a matinee, and that sold out in five days. We said, wow, people really want to come see this."

"You have to go to Des Moines to see this kind of thing, and plenty of people can't go there - maybe they don't have a car, or money to travel. We're trying to bring a little bit of that culture here."

Hirst also said the experience was very good for preparing his culinary students for real life.

"Learning in the kitchen is one thing, but when you know there are customers outside those doors who are paying to eat your food, it does increase the pressure a whole lot, which is good."

A theater setting brings additional challenges compared to a restaurant, he said, because patrons are often distracted by the show or the band when they are ordering their food. Plus, the students have to make sure they don't get distracted themselves.

"It's a magical experience. I wish I'd had this chance in school," he added.

Joseph Whaley, one of the community actors, teaches western civilization and American history at Iowa Central and was also in last year's dinner theater. He said that last year was the first time he'd done theater since he graduated from Iowa Central.

"This script is hilarious. I'm real tickled to be part of it," he said.

Sean Strachan, one of the New York actors, has Kelleher to thank not only for his involvement with this play, but perhaps for many other plays as well.

"I grew up here. We moved here before I was in seventh grade," Strachan said. "I went to school with Kevin and Mike (Loots) and Will (Schnurr)," several other actors in performance. "That's when I got started in theater. Before then I was a sports kid, but I met these guys and randomly joined the choir. We became pretty inseparable."

Strachan kept doing choir, show choir, and musicals up into high school. He eventually moved to New York to pursue his career in theater.

"I've done some leading stuff upstate," he said. "I just got off from singing the lead on the flagship of a major cruise line. I spent eight months doing that, right after the Madrigal Dinner last year.

"It was so much fun last year - an unbelievable experience. The community is so supportive."

Asked about this year's rehearsals, he said, "It's stupid."

Asked for clarification, he said, "It's just too much fun."

"The most difficult part for me is trying not to laugh. For years now Mike has been my kryptonite - I look at him once and I just can't stop laughing for like 30 seconds. So most of rehearsal for me is training myself not to laugh at him."

Strachan said he couldn't pick out one thing that was unusual from this year's rehearsals - except perhaps the impromptu cast wrestling tournament.

"Every rehearsal is different. Every rehearsal someone is adding things in - they'll say the line wrong in some way that's 10 times funnier than if they said it right. And it's great because everybody here is good at improv.

"Everyone on stage is just so alive. When something unexpected happens, they embrace it and make a moment out of it. In some shows people can be asleep on the stage, they just stand there waiting for their line, not listening, and they miss it if something happens. They're just thinking, can we go back to the script now? That doesn't happen with this group."

Contact Joe Sutter at (515) 573-2141 or



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