Murder, mayham, a whodoneit …. and good lasagna. Welcome to South Lake High School.

South Lake High School's theater and culinary arts department is taking a cue from tourist spots like Arabian Nights on U.S. 192 and offering audiences a dinner show this month. (Photo by Dave Raith).

GROVELAND – There’s a murder being planned in South Lake County, involving two feuding Italian families from New York City, with a complex mystery to be solved.
There are also plenty of laughs involved here – and, by the way, pass the homemade lasagna.
And for the students at South Lake High School, there’s a definite feeling of excitement in the air, said Jennifer Julian, an acting teacher and Theatre Club Sponsor at South Lake High.
“They keep saying, ‘Oh my goodness, it’s next week,’ ” Julian laughed.
The South Lake High School Theatre Club is presenting “Death by Dessert,” a play by Nathan Hartswick, on Oct. 20, 21 and 22 at 7 p.m. The doors open for each performance at 6:30 p.m.
The difference, though, is that the theater students are doing something a bit unique this time around. The shows will be performed in an “Italian restaurant” — otherwise known as the cafeteria of the school at 15600 Silver Eagle Road in Groveland.
Who produces a play in a cafeteria when the school has a larger theater auditorium? Julian said there’s a clear reason: this is a dinner show.
“The play is ‘Death by Desert,’ and it’s the story of two feuding families in Little Italy, New York, and they both own restaurants right next to one another, and it’s sort of the men against the women,” Julian said. “One of the women winds up dead, and we’re left wondering who is the one who killed her, was it an accident, what was the purpose of the murder.”
The show is a collaboration between Julian and her theater students, and the students in the school’s Culinary Arts Department. The audience becomes the “customers” in the restaurant, and will be served a meal as they sit back and enjoy the comedy-mystery play. As the show moves toward its conclusion, each table filled with patrons will be asked to cast their vote for who committed the murder.
In the meantime, the audience gets a three-course meal provided by Chefs Candace Huxhold and John Thunberg, who supervise the students in the culinary arts department.
Julian said they first tried this kind of dinner show last February, and it turned out to be a big hit.
“Our high school has a wonderful culinary arts department,” Julian said. “The teacher who is in charge of the department, Candace Huxhold, has been asking me for a couple of years if there was some way we could do dinner before the show. She loves the theater department. Last year I found a script that I thought would be perfect for us, and her students helped us out. They created the whole menu and designed how the restaurant would look, so we had just such a fantastic experience with that, we decided to do it again this year.
“The theater students who do the acting portion of the show always get along so well with the Culinary Arts students, and the actors use the kitchen as their back stage area,” Julian added. “It’s just a lot of fun, and we hope to make it an annual experience here at South Lake High. This is also a fund-raiser for the theater department and the culinary arts department.”
Dinner theaters are a popular tourist attraction in Central Florida, and include Arabian Nights, Capone’s Dinner & Show, and Sleuth’s Mystery Dinner Theater — which has a very similar format to the show that South Lake High School is adopting, of a comedy-mystery where the audience gets to cast a vote on who the killer is.
The high school has been a trailblazer on this front, said Christopher Patton, information officer for Lake County Schools.
“They did this last year, and now East Ridge High School is looking into it as well,” Patton said. “But it was really South Lake High that led the way on this.”
It’s a very creative idea, Patton said, since this production serves as a fund-raiser for the two departments, and offering dinner with the show should help bring in larger crowds.
“And a pretty reasonable dinner at that,” he said.
The menu for the South Lake High production begins with a garden salad, then moves on to an entrée of homemade lasagna – with a choice of beef or vegetarian — and freshly baked garlic knots. For dessert, there’s chocolate cake, and the audience members get a choice of iced tea, lemonade or water to drink.
As Julian noted, the play is also a lot of fun, involving the Donnaducce family and the Duccedonni family. They’ve been feuding for a generation, while operating two competing Italian restaurants that share a common wall.
“The characters are very much over-exaggerated — caricatures, really,” Julian said. “There’s a lot of humor that comes from that, and it’s a mystery as far as who done it.”
In addition to putting together an entertaining play and a good meal for the audience, Julian said this has been a great learning experience for the students in both departments.
“I always enjoy working with my students, and they have had a lot of fun creating these zany characters in the show,” she said. “And I can’t say enough about the culinary arts students and how talented they are. The fact that they are able to sit down and create a menu and decide how much to make and what goes into creating a dinner for 50 people is impressive.”
Reservations for the show need to be made by Wednesday, Oct. 19. The nightly seating capacity in the cafeteria is 50 people.
“We do limit it to 50, because the performance is in the school cafeteria and the acoustics in there are not great, so we want everyone to be able to sit close to the stage so we can be sure they can hear the actors,” she said.
Tickets can be purchased by emailing julianj@lake.k12.fl.us. Include “ticket request” in the subject line.
Tickets can also be reserved by calling the school at 352-394-2100, Ext. 5540. Tickets are $20 per person or $35 per couple.

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