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My Dear Watson

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - July 14, 2017

John DiDonna and Kyle Stone
Photo by Chris Bridges

Sherlock Holmes hasn't had an easy time of it on the musical stage. The most prominent example of attempts to put Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's master sleuth above an orchestra pit, 1965's Baker Street, struggled along on Broadway for nine months before closing at a major loss. The same year, the eight-performance Drat! the Cat! managed a "Holmes and Watson" song more delightful than anything in Baker Street, but it was a throwaway number in a daffy musical comedy about something else. A 1988 Sherlock Holmes: The Musical, written entirely by Leslie Bricusse, managed a few months in the West End. In all cases, the main problem appears to have been that the famously analytical, reserved Holmes isn't a naturally singing character. On the Baker Street cast album, Fritz Weaver talk-sings in clipped consonants, sounding uncomfortably like a far less interesting Henry Higgins, and Marian Grudeff and Raymond Jessel ain't Lerner and Loewe.

But here comes Jami-Leigh Bartschi from Orlando, a lifetime Holmes buff responsible for book, music, and lyrics to My Dear Watson, a Holmes-Watson endeavor for the New York Musical Festival. A bid at putting the gentlemen's entire history and relationship onstage, from their first meeting to the demise of one of them, it runs into some of the same problems her Holmes-musicalizing predecessors faced. This Holmes (John DiDonna)—no Benedict Cumberbatchian fashion plate he, but more resembling a pudgy civil servant, with pitchy vocals—is frosty and unpleasant to everyone onstage, including Watson (Kyle Stone), leading several characters to sing about the human aspects lacking in him. Running out of funds and friendless, Watson is introduced by Inspector Lestrade (Justin Mousseau) to Holmes, who instantly, amazingly intuits several things about him (in every Holmes adaptation, from William Gillette on, these scenes are fun) and invites him to share the Baker Street residence he's about to move into.

Poof, it's four years later, and the pair are investigating a murder at Birlstone Manor that isn't at all what it seems. Holmes correctly suspects Professor Moriarty (Jason Blackwater, doing some nice villainous underplaying) of being the brains behind it—that's one thing I've always found annoying about Sherlock Holmes, is he never wrong?—and it's back to Baker Street. A bullet intended for Holmes instead grazes Watson, causing the former to register concern and leading the latter to sing, "It was worth a wound, it was worth many wounds to know the depth of loyalty and love that lay behind that cold mask," which will give you an idea of Bartschi's lyrical finesse. Thus their bromance emotional arc is largely resolved, but sit tight. There's another act to go.

Bartschi's dialogue is prosaic and heavily expository; about the closest we get to touching human interaction is when Watson declares, "You're the only friend I have," and Holmes replies, "And I'm the best you can do?" Her lyrics are similarly dispassionate and information-packed, and she rhymes when she feels like it—we do applaud "sagacity/ tenacity." She's also musical director, for an orchestra of two (Pati Sayers on keyboard and Eri Park, appropriately, on violin, as that's Holmes's instrument), conducting a score that meanders up and down minor-key scales; it's, like, nearly all minor-key, the way A Little Night Music is nearly all in three-four or multiples thereof. It gets compelling on rare occasion, as when Moriarty and Holmes share a duet about possibly joining forces, but it's mostly passive and lukewarm. And when Holmes sings of a "Breaking Heart" ("Alone I must departÂ… It must be my own breaking heart"), he hasn't nearly earned the right—Bartschi hasn't convinced us he has one.

Our Mr. Holmes, DiDonna, also directs, making several questionable choices, such as a) taking Watson offstage well before Lestrade has sung him an explanatory song about Holmes's curious qualities, b) leaving Watson pointlessly onstage during a long flashback scene between Holmes and Moriarty, c) letting Stone's war-wounded Watson limp or not limp as he pleases, and d) blocking actors to avoid looking at one another. Coleen Carlson's costumes and especially Dana Mott's projections make a valiant effort to establish time and place, and the other actors have their moments—Liz Curtis's Mrs. Hudson, Holmes and Watson's tart housekeeper, might do well to have a musical of her own. And Stone, who admittedly has an easier assignment than DiDonna, being allowed to emote demonstrably, does generate some pathos as Watson takes measure of his unremarkable existence and the one man who has really mattered to him, however cold a fish that man may be.

My Dear Watson, then, isn't much good, but Jami-Leigh Bartschi is on to something in stressing the bromance aspects of her protagonists' tortured relationship. It accomplishes what previous Holmes musicals failed to do: It gives Holmes and Watson something to sing about. If only they had better stuff to sing.

My Dear Watson
Through July 16
Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street
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