Who would’ve bet that a musical, by turns wacky and heartfelt, guided by a suicidal narrator struggling with his sanity—himself a metafictional send-up of anachronistic boys’ detective fiction—populated by cartoon characters and plotted as an unsolved murder mystery while actually a poignant survivors’ tale of healing, would work?
Signature Theatre took the bet and it pays off swimmingly.
Kicking off their 22nd season, Signature claims a first: “the first time in the history of the American theatre that two world premiere musicals will be presented in rotating repertory, in full production.”
As part of its American Musical Voices Project: Next Generation “World Premiere Repertory Series,” Signature is producing companion pieces The Boy Detective Fails (book by Joe Meno, music and lyrics by Adam Gwon) and The Hollow (book by Hunter Foster, music and lyrics by Matt Connor) utilizing the same acting company, design team and musicians.
Boy Detective opens with rock n’ roll gusto, in the form of a prologue that illustrates the back story of wildly successful former child sleuth and namesake of the title, Billy Argo; his childhood exploits solving crimes and nabbing evildoers with his younger sister Caroline and feckless sidekick Fenton, his growing up and going away to school, the failure of his former companions to achieve the same success in crime solving, and Caroline’s tragic suicide.
After a 10-year stay in a hospital for the mentally ill, traumatized and doped up on anti-anxiety drugs, Billy returns home to a scary universe riddled with unsolvable mysteries, the most haunting being Caroline’s.
The unbridled opening numbers set the tone for the whole show, featuring frenetic action, elaborate and impressive scenic and sound design, humorous set pieces, quirky characters and the pervading musical motif from the song “Billy Argo, Boy Detective,” a heroic theme song belying a wry nostalgia for things comfortable and understood.
Following the mentally unstable former boy detective around his hometown as he breaks through the fog of blanketing grief is a surreal trip, where the laws of physics are continually broken, absurd characters and situations govern, and ghosts comingle with memories to serve as guides to ends unknown. It’s a bleak world, but doesn’t feel that way, covered up as it is in a sticky sweet nostalgia, hiding nuggets of honesty and goodness ready for the plucking if one has the courage to persevere through to discover the natural reciprocity possible in human interchange.
This adaptation of decidedly offbeat material works in no small part, I’m sure, due to the involvement of the novel’s author, Joe Meno, collaborating on the project. While the material could easily have digressed into self-conscious flair or maudlin melodrama, it stays on target, evoking sympathy, laughs and admiration.
A couple of criticisms however: at two and one half hours, the play runs a bit long, past what the material demands. Especially after the intermission, there is a tendency to rehash plot. The number of scenes could have been trimmed, or engineered to greater value, for example, developing Penny Maple’s very interesting but neglected character.
In her few scenes, Anika Larsen imbues Penny with a heightened take on remorse, one more realistic and moving than Billy’s, his wrapped as it is in cartoonishness. Larsen impeccably sings, dances and hits the play’s funny notes with precision, but steals the scene as an actress, in those moments when she reveals the depths of her sorrowful consternation.
Stephen Gregory Smith is on stage in every scene of the play as the painfully resolute, deadpan Billy Argo. Smith delivers a fine performance as the aloof captain of the ship, but is always hidden behind the steely detachment of the title character, not a reproof of the actor, but a requirement of the role, which however, unfortunately engenders no real love for the character.
Looking like Doc Brown from the “Back to the Future” series of films, Thomas Adrian Simpson played the demented Professor Von Golum, one of Billy’s former arch-villains, with an impious glee. Simpson reveled in hamming it up for exuberant Fosse-esqe razz-ma-tazz musical routines, then created a hush while singing “Evil,” a probing look into the dark places hidden in all natural things.
The entire design team (Derek McLane, Kathleen Geldard, Chris Lee, and Matt Rowe) and choreographer Karma Camp deserves recognition for producing a marvel of a show, mastering countless changes in lighting, sound effects, props and costumes. The “haunted” environments Billy explores on his quest are especially expressive and innovative in the way so much is construed with so little.
Director Joe Calarco, lyricist Gwon and author Meno have created an unconventional, genre-pushing examination of survivors’ grief and the human attempt to understand evil in the world, wrapped in a colorful, often outrageous exploit.
The Boy Detective Fails is a spoonful of medicine that tastes like hope.
The Boy Detective Fails runs thru Oct 16, 2011 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Cambell Avenue Arlington, VA. Each production will run in rotating repertory with The Hollow. Performances of both shows every Saturday and Sunday allow the audience to see both the same day.
The Boy Detective Fails
Music and lyrics by Adam Gwon, book by Joe Meno. Based on the novel by Joe Meno.
Directed by Joe Calarco
Music direction by Gabriel Mangiante
Choreography by Karma Camp
Produced by Signature Theatre
Reviewed by Roy Maurer
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, with 1 intermission
Rating of the show: Highly Recommended
Review of The Hollow
- Charles Isherwood . NY Times
- Susan Davidson . CurtainUp
- Charles Shubow . BroadwayWorld
- Jonathan Padgett . Metro Weekly
- Paul Harris . Variety
- Barbara MacKay . Washington Examiner
- Kyle Osborne . Examiner.com
- Michael Toscano . TheaterMania
- Missy Frederick . Washingtonian
- Ali Goldstein . BrightestYoungThings
- Peter Marks . Washington Post
- Susan Berlin . TalkinBroadway
- Doug Poms . MDTheatreGuide