Who is that boogeyman scaring the gullible and accommodating? Is it the headless Hessian wreaking terror on the residents of Sleepy Hollow, immortalized in Washington Irving’s classic 1820 tale, or playwright Hunter Foster through his world premiere musical The Hollow, at Arlington’s Signature Theatre?
The morality play based around a close knit group of individuals galvanized by a passionate fear of anything “other” is core to the canon of the human experience, and has been tragically realized again and again throughout history. That being said, what is so irresistibly provocative, illuminating or even interesting about dredging up the early American Puritans’ religiosity and provincial conservatism for the umpteenth time to make this point in a flimsy facsimile of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible?
The answer may lie in an interview Foster gave to The Washington Post: “The story gets into the Tea Party mentality of people being afraid and forming groups—we see how far fear can push a group of people.”
Ah, I see. So with that grossly unfair defamation in print, the guts of the play come into focus. The Hollow is a not-so-veiled derision of present-day conservatism and to some degree—only known to the author—Christianity, masquerading as a revelatory bell-sounding. My question is, why don’t more comfy playwrights set this moral admonishment of the dangers of absolute certainty and extreme prejudice among the nightmare atheist societies of Hitler, Stalin or Mao; or astrewn the liberal death cults of Charlie Manson and Jim Jones; or to shed light on populaces just like the one “near Tarrytown,” but on the other side of the world, in places like Pakistan, India and Kenya where people are slaughtered for being of a different faith, tribe or political party.
But no, it’s too easy to trot out the old Puritans, paint them funereally, set them up for denigration and tie them to today’s “provincials,” as tried and branded by the left-wing elite.
At least this time it’s scored to music. Let’s get on with it then:
Foster’s The Hollow has Boston schoolmaster Ichabod Crane (Sam Ludwig) arriving in the secluded settlement of Sleepy Hollow, N.Y., a bucolic scene in reality, but for this story dressed in medieval gloom. The unenlightened and fearful townsfolk are engrossed in a moralistic frenzy about the Headless Horseman, a demon they believe brings punishment to those who stray from God’s will. Or do they? There are intimations of other, all-too human motives for the sinister goings-on.
Ichabod charges the village into a tizzy, exposing “Candide” and “Gulliver’s Travels” to those with enough imagination to care, young Pieter Claassen (Noah Chiet) and former schoolmistress Katrina Van Tassel (Whitney Bashor). A triangle of tension develops between the progressive Ichabod, the demure Katrina, who “dreams of Boston,” and her fiancé Brom Van Brunt (Evan Casey). Predictably, the tension leads to an explosion, the folk rally and the Horseman’s awful justice is had.
The performers do their best with what is at hand. The standout is Bashor; she plays Katrina with a lovely touch, and her singing voice is beautiful. Ludwig’s Ichabod is fine; Signature regular Casey brings a sharp edge to the town bully Brom. There’s just not enough written for them to do.
In additional roles, Sherri L. Edelen is suitably scary as the monolithic matriarch Henriette Van Brunt; her meaty “Be Not Afraid” is one of the stronger numbers. Russel Sunday plays the fool suitably well as the town drunk Ellis Buren.
The design team scores where the script falters: Derek McLane’s minimalist forest set design, Chris Lee’s moody lighting and Matt Rowe’s sound capture the classic “Sleepy Hollow” atmosphere; the effects portending the Horseman are especially affecting. The costumes by Kathleen Geldard are convincing.
(I highly recommend seeing what this creative team has done in Signature’s companion piece, The Boy Detective Fails, to witness some truly amazing and innovative design work.)
As for the music, composer Matt Conner has devised a classical-sounding but uninspiring score. The music too often doesn’t illumine the characters very well or move the story along with conviction. The playful “Perhaps,” sung by Ludwig, Bashor and Chiet is cute, and Ludwig’s “Blue,” a valentine to Katrina, is interesting, but neither ever carry the viewer over the top in rhapsody. The appropriately titled “Invocation” and “Requiem” are just strange and awkward attempts to set the tone and attain gravitas.
In sum, the music and book are reminiscent of the shallow Disney stage shows making the rounds on the national circuit.
Book by Hunter Foster. Based on “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving.Music & Lyrics by Matt Conner
Music Directon by Gabriel Mangiante
Directed by Matthew Gardiner
Produced by Signature Theatre
Reviewed by Roy Maurer
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes, no intermission
- Charles Isherwood . NY Times
- Susan Davidson . CurtainUp
- Charles Shubow . BroadwayWorld
- Jonathan Padgett . Metro Weekly
- Barbara MacKay . Washington Examiner
- Kyle Osborne . Examiner.com
Michael Toscano . TheaterMania
Mark Lee Adams . MDTheatreGuide
Peter Marks . Washington Post
Missy Frederick . Washingtonian
Susan Berlin . TalkinBroadway