The Boy Detective Fails

Musical
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Editorial Review

Review: A double feature at Signature

By Peter Marks

Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2011
It's hard enough for parents trying to raise twins, but how about a theater attempting it? Well, those crazy show-tune-loving folks at Signature Theatre have taken on this intimidating, exhausting task with a pair of fraternal musicals being raised side by side on their Shirlington stage.

After a visit with both of them on a single weekend day, the first at the matinee and second in the evening, one received an education in why such projects are virtually unheard of. Few stage ventures are more daunting than creating a musical. And as the company reveals in its dual world premieres of "The Boy Detective Fails" and "The Hollow," absolutely nothing is more difficult than two of them.

Neither of these solidly sung pieces comes across as anything close to a finished work. I'm glad, for instance, that I had read Joe Meno's fine novel "The Boy Detective Fails" before I saw the musical adaptation on which he has collaborated with composer-lyricist Adam Gwon, because otherwise I don't think I would have been able to glean the rationale for this narratively challenged and emotionally impoverished show.

The experiential hollowness of "The Hollow," by book writer Hunter Foster and composer-lyricist Matt Conner, and based on Washington Irving's celebrated short story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," has less to do with a certain opaqueness than a decided flatness. To put it bluntly, it's a snooze. Neither spooky nor comically infused, the musical unfolds as a somber evening service of ballads and chorales. Some songs, like the plaintive "Goodnight Prayer," delivered silkily by actress Whitney Bashor, possess a supple beauty. But they coalesce around no urgent dramatic idea.

While there can be delight in the mere process of exploring new musical works, a company's rolling out of two problematic premieres at once forces a reviewer to make unpleasant choices. So if I have to choose, I would say that "The Boy Detective Fails" offers the more intriguing potential. Meno's modernist, pulp-ish novel illuminates the despair of Billy Argo, a sensitive, anxiety-ridden soul who gains renown as a precocious crime solver in his fictitious home town of Gotham, N.J. He's convulsed by many outside stimuli, the most tragic being the suicide of his beloved sister, Caroline.

The whimsy of Meno's literary achievement might transfer to the stage more successfully if the work were more widely known. As it is, the detachment of the central character, played by Stephen Gregory Smith, makes Billy a musical-theater cipher. The most vital thing about a dramatic character cannot be simply that he was the author's impetus for a book.

Meno and Gwon strip away some of the novel's other characters and subplots and try to develop a story around the haunting of Billy by his sister's death. There are encounters in a halfway house with Billy's villainous nemesis, Professor Von Golum (Thomas Adrian Simpson, looking a lot like Christopher Lloyd in the "Back to the Future" movies). They sing a couple of lively duets together, in a rather unremarkable score. But "Boy Detective" never makes clear who the heck this professor fellow is, or what, for that matter, Billy and he are to each other.

The most promising interlude evolves between Smith's Billy and his quirky love interest, a kleptomaniac named Penny, who's played with a tiny wisp of Tina Fey by the talented Anika Larsen, who sings the sweet ballad "Little Mysteries." In most other respects, "The Boy Detective," as directed by Joe Calarco and simply adorned by set designer Derek McLane and costume designer Kathleen Geldard, is a puzzle awaiting its own more resonant solution.

"The Hollow" somehow manages to shirk off its central mystery entirely. How can a musical about a menacing evil just beyond the village of Tarrytown, N.Y., fail to raise a single goose bump? The musical, directed by Matthew Gardiner, deals too decorously with the bland, surreptitious courtship of Bashor's Katrina Van Tassel and the handsome outsider Ichabod Crane (Sam Ludwig), doomed like so many from this disturbing enclave to disappear in the night.

Conner found far more useful material in the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe, which he adapted as lyrics in his intense and sensual mood-musical, "Nevermore," at Signature back in 2006. This time he, in collaboration with Foster, eschews suspense and ends up with a work that replaces chills with mere coldness.

Signature gambles on a two-fer

By Lavanya Ramanathan
Friday, Aug. 19, 2011

Just days before Signature Theatre opens its season with not one but two edgy new musicals, the mood around the theater is, understandably, more electric than usual.

In a bright rehearsal studio, the cast of "The Hollow" - inspired by Washington Irving's 1820 short story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" - is running through a dirge that will introduce the specter of the Headless Horseman. With the show beginning its nearly two-month run on Tuesday in Signature's Max Theatre, director Matt Gardiner is watching intently for kinks.

There's not much time to get it right; after lunch, most of the actors will shed their bonnets and waistcoats and transform into the characters of the quirky "The Boy Detective Fails," the other musical also opening next week, on Thursday.

If the building feels thick with anticipation, it's because "The Hollow," along with "Boy Detective," effectively began life on the Shirlington stage, and Signature is billing their premieres as the first time an American theater has produced two new musicals simultaneously - what's known in the theater world as "in repertory."

In 2009, Matt Conner and Hunter Foster of "The Hollow" and Joe Meno and Adam Gwon of "Boy Detective" signed on for an inaugural project for emerging composers, a mildly gimmicky race to present early versions of their projects to audiences with just 21 days of rewrites and rehearsals.

The culminating performances were raw but promising, Foster says, enough so that shortly afterward, Signature's artistic director, Eric Schaeffer, approached both sets of writers and composers to return for full-fledged productions. In fact, Schaeffer saw them as a pair.

The shows "have a weird kindred spirit, because they're both mysteries," says Conner, a composer whose elegant, haunting touch local theatergoers might recognize from Signature's 2006 offering "Nevermore." The two new plays also deal with towns in which the long-held way of life is disappearing, Gardiner adds.

Gwon and Meno's surreal fantasy, "Boy Detective," imagines a quaint New Jersey hamlet populated with washed-up former child detectives such as Billy Argo, a once-beloved child sleuth, a la Encyclopedia Brown. But where "Detective" is set in contemporary times, "The Hollow" harks back to early America. Conner, Gardiner and Foster (whose sister, by the way, is Broadway star Sutton Foster) set out to create a Sleepy Hollow so startlingly quiet, Conner says, that one could imagine a tendril floating through the air undisturbed even by a wind. That the village is practically amber-encased is crucial to the tale.

"Fear is our biggest theme - fear and what fear can motivate people to do," explains Foster, who says the trio frequently referenced modern events such as the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as they sought to give context to "The Hollow."

"All of a sudden we were so afraid of everything, we were completely changing our way of life," he says of that time. "We put this on a smaller scale, in a way: How does this town react to fear, and fear of an outsider, and fear of new ways of thinking?"

Musically, Conner says, "I wanted to paint a lighter sound, because I wanted the town to constantly have a sense of being 'pretty' . . . almost in a Stepford way, where the town is so pretty, you're like, 'This is creepy!' "

Of course, there will be a few eerie illusions befitting a big musical about a headless horseman.

But Gardiner warns: "What Hunter and Matt have written is psychological. It's about people; it's not about scaring people with tricks. They will see a headless horseman when they come, but it may not be the one they expect."

"That's good," Foster adds. "People are satisfied when they're surprised."