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Hmm, I see: (l-r) Hammond and Demke in The Secret of Sherlock Holmes.

Elementary, My Dear Theatergoers

 

By James Yeara

The Secret of Sherlock Holmes

By Jeremy Paul, directed by Robert Walsh

Shakespeare and Company, Lenox, Mass., through Oct. 28

The Secret of Sherlock Holmes, a 1988 play having its American premiere at Shakespeare and Company this month, will appeal to devoted fans of the fictional detective. Written to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the 1887 publication of the first Sherlock Holmes story, The Secret of Sherlock Holmes starred Jeremy Brett as Holmes and Edward Hardwicke as Dr. Watson, who in turn were the stars of the excellent Granada (U.K.) TV series in the 1980s and ’90s. As playwright Jeremy Paul wrote the screenplay for several episodes, The Secret of Sherlock Holmes was written as a star vehicle for a dynamic duo who stamped the roles of the erudite amateur detective and his worthy chronicler for legions of fans.

The appeal of The Secret of Sherlock Holmes is easily detected if one knows the Brett-Hardwicke collaboration. The physical eccentricities of Brett’s Sherlock (Brett, a stellar actor whose résumé stretches from Freddy in the film version of My Fair Lady to Lawrence Olivier’s Othello and director Ingmar Bergman’s version of Hedda Gabler, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder during the filming of the second Sherlock series, The Return of Sherlock Holmes, in 1986) were exact, unique, and riveting. Brett’s Holmes was given to sudden verbal ejaculations, pounding his right thigh in frustration or from epiphanies, smiling slyly, casting his eyes coyly downward, then titling his head up to spring a deduction. Brett’s Holmes was in top hat, with nary a deerstalker in sight. Coupled with the intelligent byplay between Dr. Watson (Hardwicke was no bumbling Watson), Brett and Hardwicke put Holmes and Watson on equal footing. English critics disdained The Secret of Sherlock Holmes in 1988 as a star-vehicle pastiche featuring a first act of expositions (the play faithfully copies swaths of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s texts) and familiar quotations (“elementary” is used most liberally), with a second act that centers on the hermeneutic circle of Sir Arthur as author and Holmes as character; it is the sort of play that seems to be mostly in parentheses.

Shakespeare and Company’s The Secret of Sherlock Holmes features longtime stars Michael Hammond as Sherlock Holmes and Dave Demke as Dr. Watson. Demke has a passing resemblance to Hardwicke’s mustachioed Watson and Hammond curiously looks more like Eric Porter, who played Professor Moriarity in the series, than he does Brett’s magnificent Holmes. As the great detective and his Boswell, Hammond and Demke call to mind that they were excellent as Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper in The Fly-Bottle several years ago at Shakespeare & Company (here they get swallowed up in the parentheses).

Cavalcade of Stars

The World Goes Round

Music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, directed by Julianne Boyd, choreographed by Joshua Bergasse

Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, Mass., through Oct. 21

The musical theater revue can be a risky affair. Often, songs from musicals lose their impact when divorced from the context of their libretti and surrounding music. Or, when solos are recast with multiple singers or morphed into medleys, more may be less. Or, a perfectly good revue may fail when performed by an ensemble incapable of performing the range of voices and characters demanded by diverse material. Finally, compiled selections from the works of a single artist or team can reveal a lack of breadth—can one imagine a musical revue constructed from the works of any of the current musical scene’s one-tune wonders?

Of course, when the musical team being represented is that of John Kander and Fred Ebb, concerns about the source material are practically nonexistent. The longest-running musical-theater collaborators in Broadway history, they offer more than 40 years of material, and among their greatest achievements are Cabaret and Chicago, two shows in which every song is a winner and more than several are showstoppers. And for range, consider the bright pluckiness of Flora, the Red Menace set against the dark poetry of Kiss of the Spider Woman. Throw in the film score from New York, New York, and you’ve an idea of the octane fueling BSC’s production of The World Goes Round.

The above notwithstanding, the first act of this 30-song opus tends towards the fluffier stuff of the duo. This is not to say that it’s bad; it’s just that the sugar (or saccharine) content of songs like “Coffee in a Cardboard Cup” and “Sara Lee” approaches the dietetic limit of the latter’s most tempting pastries. After the titular number and “Yes” introduce the capable quintet of performers, it is a bit of a stretch before “Sometimes a Day Goes By,” nicely rendered by Kevin Duda, begins to display the emotional depth Kander and Ebb could concisely achieve.

Immediately following come three selections, back-to-back, from Chicago, and Kander and Ebb’s world comes spinning to vibrant life on Ken Goldstein’s smart set. It is also here that Bianca Marroquin, fun in the earlier Arthur in the Afternoon, truly makes known her dynamic presence. I’ve been fortunate enough to see Marroquin play the role of Roxie Hart in one of my annual visits to Chicago on Broadway, and she is one of the best I’ve seen. At BSC, however, she is singing and dancing the signature Velma Kelly number, “All That Jazz,” and here she sizzles across the stage like ice water on a hot griddle.

Duda is an adept Amos Hart singing “Mr. Cellophane” from the same show, but somehow the vestiges of Bob Fosse’s or Anne Reinking’s Fosse-inspired choreography present in Joshua Bergasse’s new choreography only make us yearn for the present Broadway version.

Of the other three ensemble members, only Kurt Robbins truly stands out, and his resonant “Kiss of the Spider Woman” is one of the evening’s most dramatic experiences. When she doesn’t force it, Angela Karol Grovey is good in “And the World Goes Round” and Cabaret’s touching “Maybe This Time.” While she is fun in the over-the-top “Ring Them Bells,” Andrea Rivette lacks sufficient charisma to rivet our attention elsewhere. This is a particular disappointment in “Cabaret,” which is split between her and Duda. It is a song that is best sung as a solo and that would have been a sensational piece for Marroquin to bring down the curtain.

The highlight of the second, and stronger, act consists of two songs, “Marry Me” and “A Quiet Thing,” and a dance, “When It All Comes True” (that also includes “The Cell Block Tango” from Chicago and “Married” from Cabaret). The three pieces fluidly follow one another and are further linked in that they are all sung and danced with emotional purity and supreme elegance by Marroquin and Duda. This was the evening’s most prolonged pleasure and also its most seemingly original one.

Director Julianne Boyd continues to show her savvy for building a team of dedicated artists, which includes musical director Brian Usifer and his accomplished band. In Duda and Robbins, she has a found a couple of rising stars. And in Marroquin she has found one in perpetual brilliance. The result is a fitting tribute to Kander and Ebb, who are among American musical theater’s brightest and most enduring binary stars.

—Ralph Hammann

 


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