With this month’s debut of “The Altos,” Prairie Pines Playhouse is singing a new tune by offering year-round murder mystery dinner theaters.
Christmas-themed whodunits have been part of Prairie Pines since 2004, producer Kip Scott said. Spring shows were added about two years ago.
“It’s been fairly successful, so we decided to add a summer offering,” Scott said. “We’re hoping to do this throughout the year now as part of our business model.”
“The Altos,” which runs through July 15, is a parody of HBO’s crime drama “The Sopranos.”
“There’s a nice little mystery,” Scott said. “We’ve got to figure out who put a contract out on Tony Alto. And at the end everybody gets to voice their opinion and at the end of the show we find out.”
Sandwiched between the acts is a four-course dinner, prepared by Culinary Catering of Wichita.
“We try to give the guests a nice, high-quality dinner that they’d be happy with wherever they’d go,” Scott said. “And we give them high-quality entertainment.”
“The Altos” features a seven-member cast, and Scott said the number of actors usually varies from six to eight.
While this script was written by an out-of-state playwright, Scott said, about half of Prairie Pines’ scripts are done by Mike Roark of Wichita.
The key to a script, Scott said, is to “seamlessly transition” from the action of the script into the serving of each course of food.
Humor is the key element in all of the scripts, he added.
“We look for comedy, anything we can have fun with and interact with the audience,” Scott said. “And we’ll hopefully have a decent little mystery that people can have fun trying to figure out.”
Audience members give their guesses for the culprit, and those correct are put into a hat for a prize. Depending on the show, Scott said, audience members are correct about one-third of the time.
Tim Robu is the director of “The Altos,” Scott said.
Interactivity is key to the success of Prairie Pines and others across the country, he said.
“We grab people from the audience, and they’ll quickly become part of the show,” Scott said. “Not everybody’s into interactive games. We try to identify those people so we don’t embarrass them. However, anybody sitting down front is likely to be called on.”
Music is added to the mix in a typical evening as well, he said. The performers in the Prairie Pines company are regulars in several other Wichita theater companies, he added.
While other murder mystery companies mostly play level to the audience, Prairie Pines will keep its actors on stage about three-fourths of the time.
Performing in the murder mystery, with unpredictable audience members, makes these endeavors a challenge, Scott said.
“There’s a lot of breaking that fourth wall, and you’re dealing with an audience,” he said. “You don’t know what that audience is going to say. Our performers are pretty quick on their feet, and they are pretty quick to take what an audience members might say and throw that back at them or build that into the show.
“It really is a difficult task,” he added.
After ongoing renovations, Scott said, Prairie Pines can comfortably seat about 140 audience members at tables. While the Christmas shows are generally sold out five to six nights a week, he said, he’s hoping for a different clientele for the summer shows.
“The audience is there at Christmastime because we’re doing a lot of company dinners and Christmas outings,” he said. “We don’t get those larger groups as much. Our market is mostly groups of two, couples on dates.”
When: 6:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays through July 1; Saturdays, July 8 and 15
Where: Prairie Pines Playhouse, 4055 N. Tyler Road, Maize
What: An interactive murder-mystery dinner theater that spoofs “The Sopranos”
Tickets: $36.95 plus fees; performance includes meal of beef burgundy, chicken parmesan or eggplant parmesan; phone 316-303-2037 or www.prairiepinesplayhouse.com