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Best written reviews for “Murder at the Old Keene Mill” performed by Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia. Reviewed on May 7, 2021.

This show may be watched at:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fz1b8YFqWKM


Jack Child

Falls Church High School


Have you ever passed a local street sign and wondered how the road got its name? This curiosity prompted a group of students at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology to research and adapt into a musical the history of Old Keene Mill Road in Burke, Virginia. "Murder at the Old Keene Mill" tells the true story of the murder of Lewis Hall in 1856 and the corresponding trial and appeal of William Keene in 1857. The dramatic tale is presented as an animatic musical one-act with a storyboard feel. The project, which was 11 months in the making, employed inspired use of color, clever adaptations for an animated format, and convincing voice acting to create a thoroughly entertaining and engaging experience.


"Murder at the Old Keene Mill" was the brainchild of Quentin Lovejoy, who composed eight original songs, wrote the book and lyrics, mixed the audio, and directed the production. Lovejoy's passion was abundantly evident, and his skill shone through in the quality of the music and lyrics. In the role of assistant director was Valo Dandashi, who also contributed much to the musical. Dandashi composed the percussion parts, designed sound for the show, contributed to the book, and animated the courtroom scene. The work of these two students alone created a promising foundation for the rest of the show.


The most impressive part of "Murder at the Old Keene Mill" was the animation. The students at Thomas Jefferson split up the hefty task between seven animators: Rachel Kwon, Valo Dandashi, Naz Ansar, Meera Gupta, Svet Pack, Mayuka Valluri, and Champe Mitchell. An animated medium allowed for creative decisions which could not have been executed in a live performance. Exaggerated facial expressions, thought bubbles used to portray the imagination or memories, and cartoonish effects dramatically increased the appeal of the show. Also noteworthy was the importance of color. The production was presented almost entirely in black and white, but the color red was used carefully and sparingly to bring attention to certain parts of important scenes. This technique made Hall's blood more jarring, the harshly accusatory John Barker's handkerchief more eye-catching, and Barnett Stewart's bowtie more vibrant.


While the animators certainly should be commended, they were only one half of the equation that brought the characters to life. Voice acting from the Thomas Jefferson students rounded out the animated figures seen on screen. Impressive coordination between voice actors and animators meant that each character's physical appearance and voice meshed together seamlessly into one individual with a believable personality. Particularly notable voice acting performances came from Ryan Lien, who gave his all in the role of John Barker, and Jay Abraham, whose clear, brassy singing voice beautifully carried the emotions of William Keene as he resigned himself to his fate as a condemned man.


Months of preparation by Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology paid off in "Murder at the Old Keene Mill." The extraordinary efforts of the animation crew, coupled with the voice work done by Jefferson's actors, formed a memorable, fun, and endearing musical experience. Next time you encounter a strange road name, consider looking into its history. Who knows? There may be potential for an outstanding musical hidden in its past!

Elizabeth Vichness

W.T. Woodson High School


If you've ever been in West Springfield, Virginia perhaps you've driven on Old Keene Mill

Road. However, unknown to many, there's a surprisingly riveting and violent history surrounding this road's namesake. Thomas Jefferson High School's production of Murder at the Old Keene Mill explores this local historical event in a new, creative, and musical way.


In 1856 William Keene murdered a man by the name of Lewis Hall in a blind drunken rage. Keene was subsequently arrested and sentenced to death. However, two men on the jury, Richard Lee and Barnett Stewart, were blackmailed into convicting Keene despite their initial reservations about the case. After the trial Lee and Steward, upset about the unfairness of this case, sought legal counsel to try to help Keene get a fair sentencing. Eventually, after a plethora of petitions, the governor of Virginia agreed that Keene should not have been sentenced to the death penalty. Instead, Keene was moved to a prison in Richmond, Virginia to serve out the rest of his sentence, where he is thought to have perished in the ransacking of the city during the Civil War. Despite his controversial past, Old Keene Mill Road is named in his memory.


Written, directed, and composed by Quentin Lovejoy and Valo Dandashi, Thomas Jefferson's production of Murder at the Old Keene Mill is an animated musical. The performance features eleven instrumentalists, eight unique songs, and seven animators all working seamlessly together to create a cohesive work of art. Each song is distinct and memorable. These remarkable scores were highlighted by the vocals of the voice actors. Some highlights include "The Killer (Dead Men Cannot Accept An Apology)" sung by Jay Abraham, whose beautiful vocals highlighted the pain and remorse of William Keene during his time in prison, and the vivacious ear worm "Lock Him Up!" that recounts the events at Keene's trial. 


Another impressive aspect of the performance was the dedication, skill, and creativity put into the animation. Hand-drawn, in the style of an animated storyboard or animatic, each animator's individual talents and artistic vision shines through in their artwork. Despite this, each character remained consistent and had the same physical traits and characteristics from frame to frame regardless of the scene or animator, allowing the audience to seamlessly follow each character's journey throughout the production.


Of course, as any historical adaptation does, the creative team takes some liberties with the plot. For example, in TJ's adaptation the characters of Richard Lee and Barnett Stewart (played by Camber Boles and Siddharth Premjith respectively) were portrayed as a gay couple. While the historical account of this event confirms that the two men claim to have been blackmailed, there's debate about what information they were blackmailed with exactly. The creative team chose to fill in this hole in history, and infer that someone had threatened to reveal their sexuality to the town if they didn't convict William Keene. This choice added a new element to this local story and elevated the storytelling of the entire production. This is in no short part due to the talent of the actors themselves; Boles' (a TJ alumni) endearing and sweet personality that oozed throughout their performance and Premjith's portrayal of the more levelheaded, beautifully mustached man both worked together to create a dynamic and exciting set of characters.


Overall, Thomas Jefferson's production of Murder at Old Keene Mill is an extremely impressive feat. From the animators to the score to the voice work, the entire cast and crew delivers an exciting and creative retelling of Virginia history.  


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