By Colin Douglas
Theatergoers often complain that there are no new shows anymore.
Now that may be a slight exaggeration, but certainly a valid criticism when it feels like almost every musical is either based on a popular film or a revival of an already successful theatre classic.
But there’s great news for audiences searching for something original, different and exciting, especially fans of a certain famous British super sleuth: The Man Who Murdered Sherlock Holmes.
Actor/playwright John Reeger and his writing partner, the late composer Julie Shannon, (creators of the popular holiday classic, The Christmas Schooner) began work on this new show back in 2005. Inspired by Peter Costello’s biography, The Real World of Sherlock Holmes, in which the author shed new light on the man considered to be the creator of the modern detective story, Reeger and Shannon began the first draft of their new musical.
After several workshops and rewrites, and following Shannon’s untimely death, Mercury Theater Artistic Director Walter Stearns saw there was potential in this new piece. He lured multi-talented composer/actor/singer Michael Mahler (Hero, October Sky) to add his own touches, while enlisting expert Chicago Director/Choreographer Rachel Rockwell to direct the show’s development. With the help of these and so many other theatre artists, the new musical has finally been brought to life.
Based upon actual events from the real life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the show opens with an enactment of the author’s attempt to put an end to his most popular literary creation so that he might devote more time to scholarly writing. In what was intended to be the last installment of his serialized Sherlock Holmes stories, popularized in the monthly British periodical, The Strand, Doyle writes a story entitled, “The Final Problem.” As the curtain rises on this musical, we behold Holmes and his arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty, engaged in hand-to-hand combat on the rocky cliffs surrounding Reichenbach Falls. Suddenly they both plunge to their deaths and, with this, Sherlock Holmes exists no more. The public is outraged and Conan Doyle has to cope with the angry backlash.
His lovely wife Louise implores Conan Doyle to get his mind off the outcries by helping George Edalji, a young East Indian man who has been imprisoned for mutilating horses and threatening to do the same to the children of his village. Once Doyle has visited the young man in his gaol cell and spent time talking with his parents, an Indian clergyman and his Scottish-born wife, it soon becomes clear that this is a case resulting from racial prejudice. The boy is obviously innocent of this crime. Doyle also comes to know several of the other villagers of Wyrley and, together with Sherlock Holmes’ supernatural assistance, the two solve the case and restore justice to the village.
Prolific Director Warner Crocker has assumed the reins for this production and he’s once again worked his theatrical magic. Ably assisted by Mahler’s musical direction, this is a show that’ll keep an audience on the edge of its seat. It’s a real-life whodunnit with elements of fantasy. Doyle struggles against time to solve the mystery of who actually committed the heinous crime, but he works hand-in-hand with the able assistance of his literary creation, Sherlock Holmes.
The score is pleasant and music hall-inspired, somewhat reminiscent of AGentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. Scott Adam Davis’ scenic work is simple but effective. Yael Lubetzky’s illumination provides atmosphere and focus, while Robert S. Kuhn’s sepia-toned costumes create an old-fashioned daguerreotype look for the production.
The cast of this show reads like a who’s who of Chicagoland musical theatre. It stars the considerable talents of Michael Aaron Lindner (Sense and Sensibility, Road Show, Hairspray) as Conan Doyle and Nick Sandys (artistic director of Remy Bumppo Theatre and recently seen in the title role of An Inspector Calls”) as Holmes. Individually these two actors are magnificent; together they’re an unbeatable team.
The beautiful, elegant McKinley Carter plays Louise Doyle with grace and warmth, while relative newcomer Johann George stalwartly portrays the wrongly-accused Edalji and the lovely Colette Todd plays Ivy, a feisty maid for the Doyles and a rabid Sherlock Holmes fan.
Other terrific cast members include David Girolmo as a suspicious-acting Sergeant Campbell, Anish Jethmalani and Mary Ernster as the Reverand and Mrs. Edalji, the wonderful Christina Hall as plucky barmaid Molly Jamison, Ronald Keaton as newsmonger and village elder Norman Pierce, Matthew Keffer as irascible blacksmith Colin Stillman, Russell Mernagh as biased townsperson Royden Sharp and Jason Grimm as the unmovable prison warden.
This is a show for audiences looking for a brand new musical/dramatic entertainment and an entertaining and engaging piece that will keep them enthralled.
In addition to being a potboiler of a story, it offers some lovely songs, interesting characters and a fascinating look at the man behind Sherlock Holmes. He was an author, of course, but also a learned Victorian man with a respected medical background, a sound sporting career, and an avid advocate for justice. In this two-hour musical melodrama we discover the real Doyle.
“The Man Who Murdered Sherlock Holmes” is presented by at Chciago’s Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport Ave., through March 20. Tickets are available in person at the box office, by phone at (773) 325-1700 online here. Colin’s reviews may also be read at www.theatreinchicago.com.