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BWW Review: MURDER Afoot with Mercury's Charming SHERLOCK HOLMES

On the face of it, a musical based on Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories wouldn't seem to work, though not, apparently, for lack of trying. A cursory search brings up four or so musicals based on Doyle's material, none of which seem to have had much in the way of longitude. (And this must just be scratching the surface - the public domain is fertile soil, after all.)

Whether an adaptation (Grudeff and Jessel's Baker Street, loosely based on "A Scandal in Bohemia") or a sequel (Bricusse's Sherlock Holmes: The Musical, which follows the events of "The Final Problem"), these musicals can't seem to untangle the Gordian knot that is Holmes himself. Possessing labyrinthine powers of deduction and an utter cool, his guarded nature doesn't particularly lend himself to the highly emotional art form that is the musical. Not to mention that, as a character born in serials and raised over a century in books, film, television, and stage, it would be hard to find the one story for him that simply had to exist in the musical form.

So how does Mercury Theater's The Man Who Murdered Sherlock Holmes - a musical twenty years in the making - untie this Gordian knot?

L to R: Nick Sandys (Holmes);
Michael Aaron Lindner (Doyle)

Elementary: It cuts clean through it. It's not Sherlock's story, but Doyle's. Doyle is the murderous title character. A cut that freed John Reeger (book), Julie Shannon, and Michael Mahler (music and lyrics) to whip up this chamber musical charmer, a tasty Christmas pudding surprise in January.

The musical is drawn from real events, starting with that aforementioned "Final Problem," published in 1893, in which Doyle placed Holmes and his archenemy Moriarty on a dramatic cliffside in a fight to the death. Desperately wanting to move onto different, more weightier fare, he cut a Gordian knot of his own and dispatched them both with the flick of his pen. This move so shocked his readers that he knew no peace until he brought back the character in 1901's The Hound of the Baskervilles and carried on from there. The musical takes place in that interim, when Doyle - looking for distraction from enraged fans calling at all hours - leaves London to take up the case of the Wyrley Ripper, a provincial horse mutilator who's implied seeking human victims next. The villagers and authorities have already pinned it on George Edalji - the mixed-race vicar's son - convicted him, and called it a day, but Doyle feels something's amiss.

Then, much to Doyle's shock and displeasure, the "murdered" Sherlock Holmes materializes before him to confirm that, of course, things are amiss.

To say more would spoil the twists and turns of plot, but suffice to say, drollery, creator/creation bickering, and Japanese martial arts ensue.

Having been bowled over as much as I was in being introduced to Reeger and Shannon's Christmas Schooner, I was especially eager to catch this premiere, and Holmes is very much that same kind of warmly modest musical, if more barbed in its politics. (And necessarily so: George Edalji, a "black" man locked up after an embarrassingly cursory investigation; timely, no?)

Befitting the music hall setting devised by Scott Davis, Reeger's book and Wamer Crocker's direction go just as much for the big broad howlers and groaners as they do the playfully devilish surprises, and the cast has a clean hold on both sensibilities. As the central duo, Michael Aaron Lindner's Doyle is as much a fuddy-duddy clown as he is a forensic genius and a loyal husband; and Nick Sandys's Holmes is every inch the deerstalker-touting brain we know him to be, but not inhuman, either, even as just an apparition. McKinley Carter also shines as Doyle's wife, Louise, who is, like Holmes, every inch his equal.

L to R: Matthew Keffer (Colin); Christina Hall (Molly); Russell Mernagh (Sharp);
Michael Aaron Lindner (Doyle); Ronald Keaton (Pierce)

An ensemble of some of the finest character actors in Chicago also doesn't hurt, playing their archetypal British roles to the hilt, be they kindly vicars (Anish Jethmalani), hardscrabble maids (Colette Todd), or the deceptively charming provincial folk. (Christina Hall as the dotty bar wench and Matthew Keffer as the scruffy silent blacksmith are particular highlights.) And though Johann George has comparatively less text to work with as the framed George Edalji, he makes a wholly sympathetic impression every time he speaks or sings. Even in a Holmes mystery, where anyone couldadunnit, you don't doubt his true innocence for a second.

Shannon's score - her last, before her passing in 2012 - also follows the model set by her own Schooner score. Call it grounded gaiety: generally sprightly and tuneful, especially in her wordplay (like David Zippel's City of Angels by way of Rupert Holmes's Drood). But it's equally capable of ominousness, sobriety, and heart. (And infernal catchiness; I dare you to drive "What's Your Pleasure, Georgie?" out of your mind after hearing it.) It also says something for the score's integrity that, despite only knowing one other Shannon score, Michael Mahler's contributions to round out her work were undetectable. Mahler is also responsible for music-directing the pocket-sized orchestra, and Matt Deitchmann's lilting orchestrations are snugly attuned to the period.

(And if you're going to do a Holmes musical, go the route of Rex Harrison-style speak-singing for your Holmes, as Shannon, Mahler, and Sandys adeptly show.)

So, ubiquitous as Sherlock Holmes may be in other media, it would be a shame for his ever-loyal fans or musical premiere-catchers and enthusiasts to miss this production. It's smartly assembled, of course. It ably preserves Doyle's wit and Shannon's craft. And it serves as a reminder that intelligence and justice need not - cannot - tumble off a cliffside: A Gordian knot may not be solvable, but a three-pipe problem, with patience and diligence, can. (Genius apparitions may vary.)

"The Man Who Murdered Sherlock Holmes" plays through March 20th, 2016 at Mercury Theatre Chicago, 3745 N. Southport Avenue. The performance schedule is Wednesdays at 8 pm; Thursdays at 3 pm and 8 pm; Fridays at 8 pm; Saturdays at 3 pm and 8 pm; and Sundays at 3 pm.

Individual tickets range from $25-69, and are available online at www.mercurytheaterchicago.com, over the phone at (773) 325-1700, or in person at 3745 N. Southport Avenue, Chicago.

Photo Credit: Brett A. Beiner


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From This Author Patrick O'Brien

Patrick O’Brien is a multidisciplinary theater artist, with just the face for theatrical critique. BA Theatre Arts, Minor in Music, Millikin University '14. pobsound.com. (read more...)

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