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Review: THE REMARKABLE MISTER HOLMES at North Coast Repertory Theatre

Review: THE REMARKABLE MISTER HOLMES at North Coast Repertory Theatre

World Premiere Musical in San Diego County is an Elementary Mess

Comes a moment, somewhere toward the climax of THE REMARKABLE MISTER HOLMES, when the titular sleuth, Sherlock Holmes, played by Bart Shatto, makes a not-very-captivating observation, prompting his trusty (and in this case rather presumptuous) sidekick to utter the remark, "No sh-t, Sherlock."

Yup. The play goes there. Naturally, the line draws a laugh, the easiest laugh to be found in Omri Schein and David Ellenstein's script, but by no means the cheapest. For that, you'd have to look at one of the easily seven or eight times a cast member of this brittle corn-fest pronounces the word "hamsa," attaching a "c" to the front of the word as if the aim were to coat anyone within three feet in saliva or expel a hairball: "No, it's chamsa, ccc-hamsa, chchchchamsa." Incidentally, the hamsa in question is found in a dead body where no hamsa should ever be placed. This instance is also played for laughs. Purists of the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, you can ask for your check now.

THE REMARKABLE MISTER HOLMES isn't meant for the purists. Nor is it remarkable. Billed as a musical comedy murder mystery, the play is making its world premiere at North Coast Repertory in Solana Beach. From director/co-book writer Ellenstein's program note, we learn the piece's creation is attempting to build on the success of two previously staged Holmes-themed plays at NCR. And to the credit of Ellenstein and Schein, plot-wise at least, their stab at a Sherlock-ian adventure captures the essence of what Conan Doyle accomplished so expertly. Turning to my seat-mate at intermission, I announced, "The murderer is X." No, it wasn't. The game was afoot. I lost.

To actually reach this dénouement, however, an audience has to slog through a tiring array of blowhards and buffoonery shot through with a tonal sensibility that treads a line between broad comedy and offensiveness. The score, with music by Daniel Lincoln and lyrics by Schein, is jaunty music hall fare, with little variation, all of it saturated with puns and bawdy rhymes. The way this is directed, pretty much anyone who opens his or her mouth in song is going to end up turning him or herself into a spectacle. Some of Ellenstein's players (it's a company of nine) can pull it off with more finesse than others.

After a montage that shows Holmes foiling a series of crimes (always while peeling away some ridiculous disguise), we arrive at his latest case. Someone is murdering a bunch of spiritual leaders at the World Religious Conference, and Holmes is enlisted by an especially dimwitted Inspector Lestrade (Tony Perry) to solve the case before more bodies pile up. There's also missing jewelry, a Cockney hotel maid named Phyllis (Katy Tang) in search of her parentage, Artemis (David McBean) the hotel's hugely uptight manager and a pair of wealthy hotel guests, the von Schwantz siblings (Katie Karel and Phil Johnson) who are royalty in the quite white and hugely racist region of Kranz.

All of this should be no match for England's greatest detective, right? Well, alas, our dear Sherlock is off his game. Burnt out and daydreaming of roads not taken, Holmes is badgered by his well-meaning housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson (Deborah Gilmour Smyth). Dr Watson is absent, having inherited a mine in Argentina, but into the breach steps Watson's brainy and beautiful sister Sheila Watson (Sharon Reitkerk) who instantly sets her sights on solving the murders with or without Holmes's assistance. His copious ego threatened, Holmes plunges into the case only to find himself simultaneously out-sleuthed by and attracted to Miss Watson.

As rendered by Reitkerk, this reimagined Watson is certainly attractive, quick-witted, eloquent and probably better served in another tale where things (and people) aren't so dramatically over-the-top Maybe Sherlock's kid sis Enola over on Netflix could use a partner.

Back in REMARKABLE land, on the hammier side, Karel tears into sultriness and bawdy mispronunciations of Gerda Von Schwanz with take-no-prisoners ferocity. With or without Johnson's equally goofy Gustav, she is a riot. McBean's ultra-fussy hotel manager Artemis generates some laughs as does Smyth's Mrs. Hudson who unfortunately also has to vamp her way through an attempted seduction of Holmes that - in addition to being plot bloat (we get it; she's trying to distract him) - is hugely cringe-worthy.

Shatto is plenty game as Holmes, leaning into the self-seriousness and spoofery without seeming like he'd rather be elsewhere. By now, anyone who has ever seen this character before will have a preconceived idea of what he should be - from Rathbone to Brett, from Cushing to Cumberbatch. Not that Holmes should never sing or be good for laugh, but maracas and conga lines? Shatto certainly look the part with his deerstalker cap and that iconic pipe which never actually expels any smoke.

Which brings up another point: for a work this size, the production looks cheap. In Marty Burnett's set configuration, a series of decorative panels effectively and efficiently shuttle us between the Hotel Magnificent, London streets and Baker Street. Whenever we're spending time in Holmes' digs, however, it's rather - yes - remarkable how shabby items like the desk, chair and sofa all look. The walls are populated with photos of, naturally, Holmes himself in locales around the world. We get it. The man's ego knows no borders.

Would that this musical that carries his name lived up to his reputation.

THE REMARKABLE MISTER HOLMES plays through August 21 at North Coast Reprtory in Solana Beach.

Photo of Sharon Rietkerk and Bart Shatto by Aaron Rumley

Regional Awards


From This Author - Evan Henerson


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