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.

* * *
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.

* * *

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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Tuesday, September 06, 2011

If It's Labor Day, It Must Be Buena Vista

Jamie Radtke and Tim Donner
Yesterday was Labor Day, and that means the launch of the political season in Virginia at the annual Buena Vista LaborFest, which features an old-fashion community parade and stump speeches by political leaders and candidates.  Like the Wakefield Shad Planking each spring, the Buena Vista event began as a Democrats-only political gathering but has become bipartisan (even multipartisan) in recent years.

I captured most of the speeches on video (see below) but, first, to give you a flavor of the day, here are a couple of scenes from the parade as recorded by Steven Latimer.

The first is the lead-off musical group, a pipe band from the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) preceded by a Boy Scout honor guard bearing the colors and the second is the marching band from the local Buena Vista local secondary school, Parry McLuer High School.  ("Parry McLuer" is also the namesake of the local middle school.  Is that odd?)

I actually missed the parade, even though I was there. Just before the parade began, I realized I had lost my cellphone. And I mean really lost it, not just misplaced it. One minute I had it -- I checked into Foursquare upon arriving at Glen Maury Park -- and a few minutes later, it was gone. So if anyone in Buena Vista found a Samsung Galaxy S along the parade route on Monday, please send me an email. (I had the phone remotely disabled by Sprint and arranged for a replacement to be sent to me, but it looks like I'm stuck in the 1980s for the next couple of days.)

After retracing my steps three or four times, I gave up and headed to the pavilion to interview some politicians and watch the speeches. Over the next couple of days, look on for my interviews with Congressman Bob Goodlatte, Delegate Ben Cline, U.S. Senate candidate Jamie Radtke, and Sixth District GOP congressional candidate Karen Kwiatkowski.

I videotaped speeches by all those people plus U.S. Senate candidate Tim Donner, State Senator Creigh Deeds (D-SD25), and Deeds' challenger TJ Aldous.

Bob Goodlatte:

Creigh Deeds:
(Shaun Kenney points out over at Bearing Drift that at the one minute mark, Deeds implies that he may be thinking about running for governor again in 2013.)

TJ Aldous:

Ben Cline:

Jamie Radtke:

Tim Donner:

Karen Kwiatkowski:

You can also see previous reports from Buena Vista's Labor Day festivities, from 2008 and 2009.
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Saturday, September 03, 2011

What Explains the Decline of the Blog Carnival?

My headline is a question for which I have no definitive answer.  Perhaps readers may be able to contribute their own hypotheses.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, a blog carnival is ... well, here is a definition from Dean Abbot, as quoted by the host of the Carnival of the Mundane on May 21, 2006:

A blog carnival is a post published by a single blogger (whoever is hosting that edition) and consists of a collection of links to other posts that have been emailed to the host. The host then tries to present the links to those posts in single post of his or her own with a little context, maybe even some clever commentary.
There used to be a lot of very active blog carnivals but they seem to have disappeared by attrition.

Blogging For DummiesIn the past, I have hosted the Carnival of Liberty (now defunct) and twice, at my book review blog, the Book Review Blog Carnival (still active). My posts have been featured on now-departed blog carnivals such as the Virginia Blog Carnival, the BoBo Carnival of Politics, the Carnival of Divided Government, and quite a few others.

What prompted my question was a visit to the Blog Carnival Index, which claims to have listed 14,354 individual blog carnivals. Yet, of these, only 156 are active in the sense that they have upcoming editions listed.  That's barely one percent of the total number of blog carnivals that have been created.  Even so, some of those "next editions" are as distant as 2017, 2018, and 2019. (The bulk of them, however -- about 125 or so -- say their next editions will be published within the next few months.)

The loss of so many blog carnivals is unfortunate.  They were major factors in the conversational nature of blogging, adding to the give-and-take and sense of community that I remember from my own early days of blogging.  Blog carnivals offered bloggers an opportunity to discover like-minded writers and people with similar interests.

I should confess that, earlier this year, I made a failed attempt at starting a blog carnival.  After announcing the launch of the "Carnival of Live Theatre" last December, with a debut date of January 2, I first postponed the first edition and then scuttled it completely after I received no submissions that met the guidelines I had posted on the Blog Carnival Index.  (I did receive some spam submissions.)  Rather than further postponements, I simply let the idea die.

I'm glad the Book Review Blog Carnival -- now in its 75th biweekly edition -- is still vibrant.  I'm sad so many of the others that I've participated in have gone moribund.

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