Sunday, September 18, 2011

Twin Review: 'The Hollow' and 'The Boy Detective Fails'

On September 10, Tim Hulsey and I saw two world-premiere musicals at Signature Theatre in Arlington. Here is my review.

‘The Hollow’ Is Hollow; ‘The Boy Detective’ Not-Quite ‘Fails’
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

Two world premiere musical plays at Arlington’s Signature Theatre are not only being presented in rotating repertory, they are virtually mirror images of each other in tone, theme, and interpretation of the material on which they are based.

The Boy Detective Fails, based upon a novel of the same name, takes dark themes – murder, suicide, mental illness – and presents them in cartoonish colors and bright lights at odds with the underlying source.

The Hollow, a reimagining of Washington Irving’s comic short story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” takes a well-known gothic satire and nearly empties it of its comedic base, with a dark, brooding set to match its new dark, brooding mood.

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Ichabod Crane (Sam Ludwig). Photo: Scott Suchman. 
It is a stretch to say that The Hollow is little more than a musical retelling of the familiar Irving story. While the program says the play is "based on” the familiar story, it is more accurate to say that it was suggested (loosely) by characters and situations created by Washington Irving, because the end result bears little resemblance to Irving’s telling of the tale. (Irving’s story, set in 1820s Hudson Valley, New York, has no book burnings, no mute preachers, no rapes, no distant abandoned spouses – all elements invented for this stage production.)

The Hollow borrows a few familiar aspects of Irving’s original – a schoolteacher named Ichabod Crane, a mysterious “headless horseman,” and quirky Dutch-speaking villagers – but transforms them into a modern-day, period-costumed morality play about an American Taliban (or perhaps the Westboro Baptist Church) of intolerant ignoramuses who reject any knowledge not derived directly from the Bible. This sets up a clash with cheerful outsider Crane (he’s from Boston by way of Connecticut) who, like Socrates before him, corrupts the minds of Sleepy Hollow’s youth with such radical books as Gulliver’s Travels, Candide, and Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man. Needless to say, Irving wrote nothing like this.

Despite the play’s fundamental flaws, there are solid performances by Sam Ludwig as Ichabod Crane, Whitney Bashor as his love interest, Katrina Van Tassel, Harry Winter as Katrina’s father, Baltus, and Noah Chiet as 10-year-old Pieter Claassen. The rest of the cast, unfortunately, plays into the overwrought script and offers little more than two-dimensional caricatures of religious zealots who would sooner burn down the village schoolhouse than allow their children to learn.

Composer-lyricist Matt Conner’s score includes two excellent musical numbers: Katrina’s song of yearning about “Boston” and a trio called “Perhaps” for Ichabod, Katrina, and Pieter, in which they permit their imaginations to run wild. (Something, it seems, that is forbidden in Sleepy Hollow.)

The agitprop tone of Hunter Foster’s deeply flawed book is matched by Matthew Gardiner’s direction while the sets by Derek McLane and costumes by Kathleen Geldard almost make this ill-begotten enterprise worth watching.

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The Boy Detective Fails, though still flawed, succeeds where The Hollow falls short. Even though the main character (Billy Argo, played by Signature regular Stephen Gregory Smith) suffers from OCD or ADHD or Asperger’s Syndrome – it’s never made clear what, exactly, is wrong with him – he comes across as a likable fellow whom the audience wants to cheer on.

Thomas Adrian Simpson & Stephen Gregory Smith.  Photo: Scott Suchman.
Not being familiar with the original source material, it seems that the opening numbers, “Prologue” and “Billy Argo, Boy Detective,” condense what must be about a third of the original novel into a 12-minute expository musical scene. While composer-lyricist Adam Gwon tries to follow the dictum of “show, don’t tell,” the scene has too much “show and tell” – where the Greek chorus describes what the principal characters are doing, as they do it.

If anyone steals the show, it has to be Thomas Adrian Simpson as Professor Von Golum, Billy’s longtime adversary. Von Golum gets three novelty numbers that are quite the highlights of the show: “Old Friends” and “No Such Thing,” both duets with Billy, as well as “Evil,” a scenery-chewing delight he shares with the ensemble.

Billy also gets two affectionate songs with his equally shy romantic partner, Penny Maple (Anika Larsen), “I Like (The Secret Song)” and “Little Mysteries.”

The colorful physical environment created by scenic designer McLane, costume designer Geldard, and lighting designer Chris Lee helps to overcome any of the show’s minor shortcomings. They take full advantage of the expansive stage available to them.

If The Boy Detective Fails has any fundamental flaw, it is that at the end of the show, there is no sense of resolution. The problem is, this is precisely what the librettist – Joe Meno, who also wrote the original novel – seems to intend. That the audience leaves the theatre feeling unsettled and alienated may provide some artistic satisfaction to the creators is really no consolation to the people who bought tickets expecting to see the various plot strands arrive at a logical terminus.

That said, director Joe Calarco’s staging for The Boy Detective Fails – lightheartedly at odds with the central themes of the piece – works precisely because of the juxtaposition. Gardiner’s direction of The Hollow, in contrast, is too earnest by half. Their choices explain the general success of The Boy Detective Fails and the ultimate hollowness of The Hollow.

With a few tweaks to the script (perhaps including some judicious cuts of about 20 minutes of its playing time), as well as a more definitive ending, The Boy Detective Fails might have a life beyond this debut production at Signature Theatre. To salvage The Hollow, however, will require a total overhaul. As currently conceived, the play has little worth saving.

The Hollow and The Boy Detective Fails were commissioned through Signature Theatre’s American Musical Voices Project (AMVP). Both shows continue in rotating repertory through October 16 in The MAX, Signature’s larger performance space, at 4200 Campbell Avenue (Shirlington Village) in Arlington, Virginia. For ticket information, visit the theatre’s web site at or call the box office at 703-820-9771.

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