A Double Dose at Signature

I caught a fascinating double feature at Signature Theatre on Saturday.

For reasons I still don’t quite understand, the theater has inflicted on itself the gargantuan undertaking of starting the season with two new American musicals done in repertory with overlapping casts. I’m happy to say that each show delivers a fascinating, complete theatrical experience. (And I do have to admit that I didn’t really get any more insight into either piece by seeing them in repertory than I would have seeing them sequentially in a season.)

Stephen Gregory Smith flanked by James Gardiner and Anika Larsen. Photo: Scott Suchman.

On to the first. The Boy Detective Fails tells the story of Billy Argo, former successful teenage sleuth, dealing with a world that seems less certain for him and his youthful sidekicks as he grows up. The show tells the story of Billy’s youthful success leading to institutionalization and then his reintegration into society. Along the way we get a romance with a quirky kleptomaniac (is there any other kind?) and Billy trying to solve a deep family mystery.

For the style of the show, imagine a Harvey comic book (Richie Rich, Little Dot) as written by Jean-Paul Sartre. The show wraps an existentialist despair in bright music and cotton candy colors and even the song “Evil” with Billy and his arch-nemesis is a sprightly soft shoe. Along the way there are clever nods to the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and even a touch of Merrily We Roll Along.

Typically, as with Merrily…, musicals about youthful exuberance lost to adult experience mourn the loss. The Boy Detective Fails seems to embrace the failure, and the character is happily left with the revelation “I don’t know” at the end of the evening.

Ichabod Crane (Sam Ludwig) makes his first appearance Photo: Scott Suchman.

Moving on from Sartre comic book, The Hollow is like a Disney cartoon as directed by M. Night Shyamalan. The musical takes Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow as its starting point. It develops the story into a parable of the way new ideas and the power of the imagination can threaten hidebound societies.

In this case, new Yankee schoolmaster Ichabod Crane comes to the Dutch settlement of Sleepy Hollow. While many resist his ideas, farmer’s daughter Katrina Van Tassel falls for them (and for Ichabod), disturbing the social order of Sleepy Hollow. As does Irving, the musical leaves whether the eventual fate of Crane was the result of the Hessian Headless Horseman ghost or due to more earthly forces.

Sitting through the show, it was easy to see parallels to our contemporary culture, where swaths of society are willing to question givens such as evolution or climate change. The music is lovely and everyone works to give the piece a combination of beauty and creepiness. One acerbic friend did complain about the lack of action saying “In the theater, you show people what happened rather than telling them. That’s why it’s called a ‘show’ rather than a ‘tell.’”

Congratulate Signature for rising to the production challenge. Each show has been given a distinct, stunning physical production. The casting is first rate all around, and it shows the wealth of their talent pool that pros like Harry Winter and Sherri Edelen are each in smallish ensemble parts – although each knows how to make the most of the moments they are given. Stephen Gregory Smith is a particular pleasure as Billy Argo in The Boy Detective and Whitney Bashor’s turn as Katrina Van Tassel is a textbook example of how to make an ingénue bearable. Although the cast members all do great work balancing the two shows, James Gardiner deserves particular plaudits for going from a Dutch farmer in Hollow to the Millhouse-esque sidekick in The Boy Detective.

The Boy Detective Fails and The Hollow run through October 16. Tickets and information.

At this point in her career, is Sherri Edelen capable of doing anything wrong on stage? With the mercifully un-precocious Noah Chiet

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