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Washington DC by Susan Berlin

The Boy Detective Fails and The Hollow

Also see Susan's review of The Heir Apparent

Boy Detective Falls
Anika Larsen and Stephen Gregory Smith
Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, adds to its list of firsts by presenting two new musicals in rotating repertory to launch its 22nd season. Signature commissioned the two works, The Boy Detective Fails and The Hollow, through its American Musical Voices Project: The Next Generation. The former is a small, fascinating experiment with an appealing score, while the latter fulfills the promise that composer Matt Conner displayed five years ago with his score for Nevermore.

While the two works seem very far apart regarding their subject matter—The Boy Detective Fails is a whimsical story of a former child detective coping with the mysteries of growing up, The Hollow a shadowy retelling of Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow—they share a sense of elemental uncertainty that can be called "post-9/11" in nature. The first takes place in a New Jersey town where familiar things and people are vanishing for no apparent reason; the other recasts the story of the Headless Horseman as a consideration of xenophobia and religious fanaticism.

The boy detective of the title is Billy Argo (Stephen Gregory Smith), who became the hero of his town as a preteen when he began solving mysteries alongside his younger sister Caroline (Margo Seibert) and his nerdy friend Fenton (James Gardiner). However, an unsolved case and a family tragedy left Billy suicidally depressed; when he's released after 10 years in a mental institution, he has no idea what to do with himself.

Billy is not the only off-center person in his world. He gets a job doing phone solicitation for a company that sells lifelike fake facial hair; he lives in the same halfway house as the evil scientist who, decades earlier, kept trying to kill him (Thomas Adrian Simpson); he belongs to a most amusing support group; and he has an accidental encounter on a bus that leads him to a possible new friend (Anika Larsen). Even the remaining structures in town (scenic design by Derek McLane) are miniatures that keep shifting position.

Billy's adventures began as a novel by Joe Meno, who also wrote the book for the musical version with composer-lyricist Adam Gwon. The songs range thematically from the sweet duet "I Like (The Secret Song)" for Smith and Larsen, through the frayed razzle-dazzle of Billy's boss (Harry A. Winter), and Simpson's dark musings on evil.

As brought to life by director Joe Calarco, Smith gives a winning performance as Billy, with a shuffling posture and shyness that vividly demonstrate the dislocation of a child trapped in a man's body. Seibert shows Caroline's frustration and inability to cope with adult trauma; Simpson is a hoot as an elderly blowhard who remembers his hatred of Billy, but not the reasons behind it; and Evan Casey amuses as a criminal so grim, his name is "Killer."

The Hollow
Sam Ludwig and Whitney Bashor
On the other hand, The Hollow is gothic and feverish, powered by Conner's hypnotic music and lyrics and Hunter Foster's taut book. In this version of the story, the town of Sleepy Hollow in post-Revolutionary War New York State is an isolated settlement whose Dutch immigrant population distrusts the outside world and relies strictly upon the Bible for guidance. Schoolteacher Ichabod Crane (Sam Ludwig), an educated young man from Boston, upsets the established order by introducing secular literature to his students, making him a danger to the entrenched ideas of the community.

The underlying question in Irving's story is whether or not the legendary Headless Horseman actually exists. In this version, the rational Ichabod doesn't believe, but several residents of Sleepy Hollow have gone missing over the years—and, as far as the townsfolk are concerned, the disappearances have a lot to do with insufficient religious zeal and lack of obedience to the will of God.

Foster and Conner build tension by allowing the songs to weave through the dialogue scenes, seldom stopping for applause. Director Matthew Gardiner adds to the sense of inescapable doom through his tight control over the staging and performances.

While Ichabod is the most recognizable character, the moral and emotional center of The Hollow is Katrina Van Tassel (Whitney Bashor), the previous schoolteacher. In a vivid performance, Bashor demonstrates how Katrina finds herself torn between the intellectual freedom Ichabod offers and the familiar, if faintly threatening, love of Brom Van Brunt (Casey). Katrina's father (Winter) is the closest thing to a freethinker in Sleepy Hollow, while Bram's mother Henriette (Sherri L. Edelen) devotes her life to criticizing people for not following their religion as strictly as she would like.

Signature Theatre
The Boy Detective Fails
August 25th - October 16th
Book by Joe Meno
Music and lyrics by Adam Gwon
Based on the novel The Boy Detective Fails by Joe Meno
Killer Kowalzavich/Dale Hardly/Ensemble: Evan Casey
Therapist/Ensemble: Sherri L. Edelen
Fenton: James Gardiner
Penny Maple/Ensemble: Anika Larsen
Violet Dew/Nurse/Ensemble: Tracy Lynn Olivera
Caroline Argo: Margo Seibert
Professor Von Golum: Thomas Adrian Simpson
Billy Argo: Stephen Gregory Smith
Detective Brown/Ensemble: Russell Sunday
Larry/Ensemble: Harry A. Winter
Directed by Joe Calarco
Musical direction by Gabriel Mangiante
Choreographed by Karma Camp

The Hollow
August 23rd-October 16th
Book by Hunter Foster
Music and lyrics by Matt Conner
Based on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving
Katrina Van Tassel: Whitney Bashor
Brom Van Brunt: Evan Casey
Pieter Claassen: Noah Chiet
Henriette Van Brunt: Sherri L. Edelen
Constable Vos: James Gardiner
Ichabod Crane: Sam Ludwig
Marie Claassen: Tracy Lynn Olivera
Xandra Vos: Margo Seibert
Charles Claassen: Thomas Adrian Simpson
Ellis Buren: Russell Sunday
Baltus Van Tassel: Harry A. Winter
Directed by Matthew Gardiner
Musical direction by Gabriel Mangiante

MAX Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave.
Arlington, VA 22206
Ticket Information: 703-820-9771 or 1-800-955-5566 or www.signature-theatre.org


Photo: Scott Suchman


-- Susan Berlin


Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for D.C.



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