Arts + Entertainment

Grassroots Community Theater Comes Alive in a Ghostly Musical

Harrisonburg brothers Chris Howdyshell, co-owner of a the Little Grill Collective in downtown Harrisonburg, and Mike Howdyshell, an Augusta County school teacher, have written and produced their first interactive musical to be performed at Court Square Theater this Halloween season. Harnessing the support and talents of a music-friendly town, they have created something truly unique.

“The Girl Who Died Most Mysteriously” tells the story of a down-on-his-luck Private Eye who takes on a mystery that may change his life. In the spirit of “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Scooby Doo Mysteries,” this spooky musical has a twist – it features a live band playing original Americana music. Chris and Mike are men of many talents, having not only written the play itself but all of the music as well, from toe-tapping ditties to mournful melodies. A rag tag team of passionate players and aspiring local actors fill out the cast and dance to the choreography of a ballet school rebel.

Chris and cast members practice a musical number for the show. Photo courtesy of “The Girl Who Died Most Mysteriously” Facebook page.

The play began four years ago when Chris and his wife were preparing to have their first child and were looking for ways to help with the cost of their midwife for an at-home birth. “I had this idea – seven songs that told a story of a man trying to get his act together and solve a crime,” Chris remembers. “I had just quit smoking cigarettes after 14 years, so I wrote a lot of songs about wishing I had something I didn’t have any more. I myself was really trying to get my act together. This set of songs that was quickly turning into a musical was set in October, so I wrote in some scary Halloween-ish stuff  and, all of a sudden, I had a show.”

The show was well-received and raised several hundred dollars. Three years later, as Chris and his wife prepared to have their second child, he decided to bring back the show. But rather than doing a one-man performance like the first time, Chris said he wanted to “get some folks I know to play different parts, sing the different songs, and turn it into an Americana musical!” The show expanded to three nights, with one night at The Little Grill Collective and two nights at the Blue Nile. The show was a huge success, with all three nights selling out. Admission was “pay what you will” and resulted in $700 dollars in profits.

And now, Chris has decided to bring the show back for another year, with some new twists. “So here we are…,” says Chris. “I have two beautiful children, I’m still broke, and I’m trying to do this crazy musical again. This time I decided to get the help of my brother, Mike. He was the narrator the previous year and agreed to help tweak the play so it made sense, added a couple more songs, and really made it cohesive.”

Mike & Chris Howdyshell at a rehearsal. Photo courtesy of “The Girl Who Died Most Mysteriously” Facebook page.

The Howdyshell brothers have been playing music and performing together since childhood, but this is the largest and most ambitious project they’ve attempted. For this show, the brothers wanted to showcase the talented artists they knew in the community. Chris and Mike are grateful and amazed by the support of local artists, local businesses, and arts organizations for this project.

“All the pieces have fallen into place,” observes Chris, about the support they have already received. “The community is once again rallying behind the idea that doing something original is worth it. It’s been an amazing ride, all thanks to the kindness of strangers, to quote a phrase.”

Innovative technical aspects of the show are creating a buzz as well, in part, for its use of unconventional, interactive theatrics. Mike has created an iPhone app that can be downloaded before the show which allows the audience to participate with song lyrics and encourages them to play spooky sounds at certain points during the performance.

Performances will be held at Court Square Theater at 7 pm on October 28, 29, and 30. Tickets are $8 in advance and $10 at the door.

“We have lots of chances for you to dance and sing with us and celebrate this cute little town we live in,” says Chris. “Harrisonburg’s Halloween just go a whole lot more musical!”

Chris Howdyshell is the writer, director, and producer of, as well as an actor, singer, and musician in, “The Girl Who Died Most Mysteriously.” He is also a co-owner of The Little Grill Collective.

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