BWW Review: World Premiere Musical DEADLY Offers Victims the Chance to be Heard and Remembered
Six year ago, playwright and actress Vanessa Claire Stewart came across the true story of H.H. Holmes, America's first documented serial killer who stalked and murdered women who were living in a Chicago boarding house, all of whom traveled to the "big city" seeking a better life for themselves in the 1890s. It was a time of great inventions, including Thomas Edison's electric lights and the Ferris Wheel ride, which offered riders a new vantage point to view the city or perhaps enjoy a few private moments alone with a date. But in Holmes' case, the ride offered an easy way for him to seduce the many unsuspecting women who fell for his charms, gave him all they had, and then wound up brutally murdered and buried in the boarding house's basement.
But when Stewart realized every book or newspaper article about the unspeakable crimes done by Holmes had been written by men, all of whom equated each victim's presumed sexuality with her violent demise, she thought about how there is a fascination around Holmes and people like him (Ted Bundy, Jack the Ripper, Jeffrey Dahmer) while the victims and their stories vanish into thin air. Inspired by each united voice in today's #MeToo movement and every pink pussy hat wearing activist taking to the streets to get the voices of victims heard, now was the time to tell the truth about the lives of seven women who trusted and fell for H.H. Holmes only to disappear and seemingly be forgotten forever. After all, they were intelligent, ambitious, independent women. It just wouldn't do to forget who they were.
Sacred Fools Theater Company is launching its 23rd season with the World Premiere of the musical DEADLY by Vanessa Claire Stewart with Music by Ryan Thomas Johnson and directed by Jaime Robledo. Taking place in 1893, a time of hope and optimism as the World's Fair turns the globe's eyes toward Chicago and the cultural explosion of art and technology on display. But it is also a time when a demon lurks beneath, taking advantage of the adventuresome spirit of modern-thinking and very independent women.
The musical opens with his seven victims singing introductions of themselves and their contempt and fascination of "Holmes" "In Chicago" where he built a hotel and turned it into a murder castle to entrap and kill unsuspecting ladies new to the big city. Soon Lizzie Sommers (Brittney S. Wheeler, who becomes the musical's narrator and rocks the stage with her powerhouse voice and attention-grabbing stage presence), the hotel's front desk clerk who becomes Victim #1, sings her heart out introducing us to "Benjamin Pitezel," (David LM McIntyre, perfectly embodying the backbone-missing building's superintendent, sharing the role with French Stewart), who was willing to lend Holmes (suave and sophisticated Keith Allan who certainly oozes the charm necessary to seduce unsuspecting lonely women to a tee) a hand in accomplishing his dirty deeds just to keep his job and support his family.
While Lizzie gives each of the women a chance to speak up for themselves from the after-life, Holmes shares his view on the missing women while being questioned by Detective Frank Geyer (Eric Curtis Johnson) who has been alerted by family members concerned about their missing relative after letters written to them are returned unopened. Remember these murders happened at a time when there were no telephones or any other way to communicate other than letters which could take weeks to be received and answered.To give them voice, here's a quick rundown of Holmes' victims. Emeline Cigrand (Cj Merriman) who was working as a nurse at a dry-out clinic in Indiana where Holmes and Pitezel were sent as patients. After using his seductive charm to make her believe he was sweet on her, Holmes offered Emeline a job in Chicago as a hotel receptionist at twice the salary. She was now free to follow her heart and become a suffragette, but fate - and her new employer - had other plans for her. Her solo "Light a Fire" hints at more than just the fireplace used to heat her room!
Evelyn Stewart (Kristyn Evelyn) escaped her family's stifling influence and went to re-create herself in Chicago. She knew her way around machinery, was good at repairs, and aspired to be an engineer. Hoping to see the wonders of the World's Fair, she procured temporary employment at a certain hotel in exchange for discounted lodging. After a precarious ride on the new "Ferris Wheel" with Holmes, it turned out to be her last job. The first three victims, Lizzie, Emeline and Evelyn, unite "In the Basement" at the beginning of Act 2 to introduce and welcome Holmes' new victims after their warnings about him remained unheard until it was too late.Soon to join the three ghostly spirits are Julia Conner (Erica Hanrahan-Ball), recently separated from her inattentive husband, arriving with her 12-year old daughter Pearl (Shaina Hammer in for Ashley Diane at the performance I attended), whose life was upended as her parents' marriage dissolved. After checking in to a certain deadly Chicago hotel, lonely Julia soon took up with a dashing new lover, but before long, the relationship took a turn she never expected. And at the same time, alone in a new city among strangers, with her parents fighting constantly and her doll, Becky, as her only constant, Pearl retreats to her room where she starts hearing the voices.... from the basement. It is unfortunate whom she decides to tell, which lands her down there with the other victims.
The last two, sisters Minnie and Anna Williams (Samantha Barrios and Rebecca Larsen) from Midlothian, Texas were as different as night and day. Minnie Ruth Williams received a strict Southern Baptist upbringing as a well-off heiress thanks to her late uncle. But what the trusting young woman really wanted was romance, which she found on a trip to Boston when she met the dashing Henry Gordon. She was very quickly taken with him, and, after writing several letters, decided to move to Chicago to be near him. But the man she had fallen in love with turned out to be H.H. Holmes who had his own ideas about the place she was to take in his life. Barrios' enchanting southern accent endears her innocence, especially during her ode to love, "When I Think of Him," sung to her younger sister Anna, the clear-eyed realist whose attempts to dissuade Minnie from following her heart wind up leading her into the arms of the deadly Mr. Holmes as well.
So now you know them, thanks to Vanessa Claire Stewart's brilliant characterizations, while their inner strengths and weaknesses are shared during the often-difficult dialogue-based musical numbers by Ryan Thomas Johnson which forward the story line. The entire production is perfectly cast, with technical wizardry abounding thanks to the multi-level set designed by Stephen Gifford, sound design by Cricket S. Myers, lighting design by Andrew Schmedake, projection design by Corwin Evans, and costume design by Linda Muggeridge which allows the audience to easily recognize when the women are speaking in life or from the depths of the basement after succumbing to the wiles of the deadly H.H. Holmes. Kudos to Jaime Robledo for his quick-paced direction, composer/musical director Ryan Thomas Johnson and his four-piece band who rock the house, and choreographer Brin Hamblin for expertly drawing our attention exactly where it best serves these women who should never be forgotten.
The World Premiere of the murderous musical DEADLY continues on Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm with one performance on Monday, October 21 at 8pm at Sacred Fools Theater Company in the Broadwater Main Stage, 1076 Lillian Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90038. Reservations can be made by contacting email@example.com or buy $15 general admission tickets online at www.sacredfools.org
Photo credit: Jessica Sherman Photography