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A CurtainUp DC Review
The Boy Detective Fails & The Hollow

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Signature Theatre does not shy away from risks. However, opening the 2011/12 season with two world premieres while Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer is in New York opening Follies (), has not gone smoothly. The Hollow and The Boy Detective Fails which are running in repertory were commissioned by Signature Theatre as part of the American Musical Voices Project: The Next Generation. They have all the splendid production values -- particularly Derek McClane's set -- that we have a tendency to take for granted at Signature. The six-piece orchestra makes Matt Conner's music sound beautiful and special kudos go to Sound Designer Matt Rowe, whose offstage whinnying horse sounds as though he's ready to gallop across the set.

The Boy Detective Fails

In our town, all the things we love have begun to disappear.— Larry, as he points to doll-house sized buildings.
The Boy Detective Fail
Stephen Gregory Smith as Billy Argo, The Boy Detective
(Photo by Scott Suchman)
The Boy Detective Fails by Joe Meno is based on the playwright's novel with the same title. A stage-wide panorama of pristine mountains and blue skies (beautifully done by Derek McClane) faces the audience at the beginning of the first act. But don't be fooled. What looks like an idyllic place, a small town reminiscent of Our Town, has some dark secrets.

Stephen Gregory Smith as the boy detective (Billy Argo) with short-cut hair, knee pants and childlike social ineptitude, gives an excellent performance. "Everybody's good at something," he says earnestly, "I'm good at finding the truth." With the surety that comes with youth, Billy thinks that if he puts his mind to it he can solve any crime, any puzzle, and he's pretty good at what he does. His sister Caroline (well played by Margo Seibert) and his friend Fenton (played with an infuriating nasality and cartoonish characterization by James Gardiner) agree.

When confronted with the tragedy of Caroline's death by suicide, Billy searches for clues as to why. But the questions are never answered. He cannot accept the fact that you cannot know everything and that is the play's theme. Some things are unknowable.

Billy's grief is misconstrued by the town's citizens and the poor guy is shuffled off to a hospital for the mentally unstable. This is where Meno's play shifts gears and loses direction, as do Adam Gwon's otherwise admirable music and lyrics. Is this children's theatre, a macabre psychological thriller, vaudeville or what? Probably not the fault of director Joe Calarco. Joe Meno's script could use judicious editing.

The mashup of themes and musical styles are distracting and the attempts at humor (false disguises, a vaudeville turn, a pawnshop killer (overplayed by Evan Casey), security men who do the bunny hop) flop. Enter Billy's love interest -- if he were interested in love, he's very shy -- a kooky kleptomaniac named Penny (an endearing performance by Anika Larsen) who always wears pink and brown and sometimes goes dancing with people who aren't there. Her advice to Billy regarding his desire to "solve" the mystery of Caroline's death is "You shouldn't wreck your brain with things you cannot explain." Right.

The Hollow

Until now, weíve only allowed those from the Hollow to teach. But times are changing. We canít just hide away here on the banks of the Hudson forever. There are those who disagree with me, but I do believe itís for the best.— Baltus to Ichabod Crane a newcomer to the conservative and religious community of Dutch immigrants living in the Hollow.
The Hollow
Whitney Bashor(as Katrina Van Tassel
(Photo: Scott Suchman)
Matt Conner's melodious music and quaint lyrics are well served by Gabriel Mangiante's mini-orchestra and an ensemble blessed with luscious voices. Particularly pleasing are the choral pieces at the top of the show: "Legend" . . ."Invocation" and the finale, "Requiem." Another piece, "Be Not Afraid," a plea for courage in the face of zealotry, sung by Sherri L. Edelen is a high point of the first act, and even more affecting when sung by the ensemble in the second. The most outstanding ballad of the evening, "Little Things," sung by Whitney Bashor and Sam Ludwig, is an endearing ode to simplicity that lacks sentimentality.

The Hollow's ensemble under Matthew Gardner's direction is, for the most part, fine. But Hunter Foster's adaptation of Washington Irving's wordy and grim tale of narrow-minded, rich and zealous Dutch immigrants living in Tarrytown, New York is less so. It makes you wonder if this show is meant as a comment on 21st-century conservatism, just as Arthur Miller's drama The Crucible examined the morality of witch hunting at the time of the McCarthy hearings. That part works well. However, the rest makes for a dark and dreary musical .

The Boy Detective Fails by Joe Meno
Directed by Joe Calarco
Cast: Evan Casey (Killer Kowalzavich/Dale Hardy/Ensemble); Sherri L. Edelen (Therapist/Ensemble); James Gardiner (Fenton); Anika Larsen (Penny Maple/Ensemble); Tracy Lynn Olivera (Violet Dew/Nurse/Ensemble); Margo Seibert (Caroline Argo); Thomas Adrian Simpson (Professor Von Golum); Stephen Gregory Smith (Billy Argo); Russell Sunday (Detective Brown/Ensemble); Harry A. Winter (Larry/Ensemble).
Music and Lyrics: Adam Gwon
Orchestrations: Andy Einhorn
Choreography: Karma Camp
Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including a 15-minute intermission.

The Hollow by Hunter Foster
directed by Matthew Gardiner
Music and Lyrics by Matt Conner
Orchestrations, Michael Morris
Cast: Whitney Bashor (Katrina Van Tassel); Evan Casey (Brom Van Brunt); Noah Chiet (Pieter Claassen); Sherri L. Edelen (Henriette Van Brunt); James Gardiner (Constable Vos); Sam Ludwig (Ichabod Crane); Tracy Lynn Olivera (Marie Claassen), Margo Seibert (Xandra Vos); Thomas Adrian Simpson (Charles Claassen); Russell Sunday (Ellis Buren); Baltus Van Tassel (Harry A. Winter).
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.

Production details for both The Boy Detective Fails and The Hollow:
Musical Direction: Gabriel Mangiante
Scenic Designer: Derek McClane
Costume Designer: Kathleen Geldard
Lighting Designer: Chris Lee
Sound Designer: Matt Rowe
Both plays running in repertory from August 23 to October 16, 2011, at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, Va.; 703-573-7328; www.signature-theatre.org.
Review by Susan Davidson based on September 10, 2011 matinee and evening performances.
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