Sleuth Hurts: A depressed detective stars at Signature.
Sleuth Hurts: A depressed detective stars at Signature.

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American musical theater has some good things going for it. That much is evident in the pair of musicals that opened at Arlington’s Signature Theatre last week. Schools like Carnegie Mellon University, Yale University, University of Michigan, and Catholic University are churning out actors who can sing. Composers are writing artsy but hummable tunes. And some theaters, like Signature, are willing to invest significant money in new shows.

But are they investing in the right shows? That’s the common-denominator question still lingering three years after its Glory Days transferred to Broadway, closing after just one underwhelming night. Now Signature is billing its fall premieres as an American first: a duo of literary musicals running in repertory. The Boy Detective Fails was converted by the novel’s author, Joe Meno, while Hunter Foster took on Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

From a production-values standpoint, Signature gave The Hollow and Boy Detective equal treatment. With the exception of the leads, cast members and musicians pull double duty, and Signature made some wise and versatile hires. The costumes, scene, and sound design are outstanding, no easy feat given that crews have mere hours to change over between shows.

You’d think a classic American ghost story would hold more promise than a quirky 2006 novel about a 30-year-old former gumshoe. Turns out, The Boy Detective Fails is the better of the two, but—and this is a pretty big but —the subject matter and staging may scare audiences away.

Boy Detective opens with the best children’s-theater montage you’ll ever see. Amid cheery chants of “Billy Argo, Boy Detective!,” the cast darts between miniature buildings that dot the stage. The trio of adolescent sleuths chases rogue librarians and shady clerks with their outsized magnifying glasses and flashlights, making the front page every time they nab another diamond bandit.

Then the music slows, takes a minor-key turn, and, we’re told, hometown hero Billy Argo goes off to college, leaving his younger sister Caroline (Margo Seibert) at home to lose her virginity and slit her wrists.

This is rather graphically—if imaginatively—depicted. As Seibert unties her ponytail and disrobes, members of the ensemble wave bloody nighties on sticks, all while softly singing “Abracadabra.” Measures later, Billy gives the razor a less-successful go, and he’s packed off to the St. Vitus Institute for the Mentally Ill.

Holy mother—which of these musicals is the horror show? Do not, under any circumstances, bring the kids. But you do need to bring someone who appreciates the whimsy of children’s theater. Director Joe Calarco uses obvious props to convincing effect—for example, the helium clown balloons and eerie lighting that create the aura of a toy factory. The whole cast is costumed in a cartoonish palette.

Our depressed hero is released from St. Vitus 10 years later, in a bow tie and blazer and carrying a suitcase full of Ativan, Anafranil, and Seroquel.

Stephen Gregory Smith is not playing a very charismatic character, which is inherently problematic if you’re playing the lead in a musical. It’s not until 60 minutes in that we are shown (rather than force-fed) evidence of Billy’s prenatural powers. “You took the C train!” he tells his boss at a toupée telemarketing center, noting the tar on his shoes and the feathers in his fake hair.

Finally, we get it: Billy’s secret to sleuthing is OCD. At intermission, I overhear theater patrons debating whether they preferred Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys. On cue, Act 2 opens with a genius toe-tapper featuring former child detectives Dale Hardy and Violet Dew. Billy confesses that his goal is to solve one last mystery and then stab himself. Violet nods empathetically and says, “He’s on medication.”

Hmm. Anyone thinking of another recent musical that rode waves of anti-anxiety meds to Broadway? Next to Normal, the Tony-winner that passed through Arena Stage, worked because the rock anthems functioned as a cathartic release. “I Miss the Mountains” was a believable bipolar ballad. But a childlike waltz about kleptomania? That’s creepy.

Which is not a fair characterization of Adam Gwon’s music. The score is Boy Detective’s strongest suit. It’s through-composed, with nearly two hours of music underscoring the dialogue. Gwon and orchestrator Andy Einhorn strategically recycle their own themes and keep a variety of Nickelodeon-friendly music coming. Everything’s piano driven, but layers of harp and winds keep the score light and colorful.

Ultimately, the problems facing Boy Detective may be more pragmatic than dramatic. How many people in Washington can there be who want to see a surrealist musical—even a pretty good surrealist musical—about a suicidal, grown-up Encyclopedia Brown?

Saturday’s attendance proves my point. The Boy Detective matinee was less than half-full, while the evening show of a beautifully produced, poorly constructed melodrama sold out.

The Hollow follows in the neo-Romantic vein of Light in the Piazza, Jane Eyre, Little Women, and other Masterpiece Theatre-grade musicals. That last clunker starred Foster’s sister Sutton, and you’d think big brother might have learned a lesson in How Not to Adapt 19th Century American Literature. Admittedly, Irving’s story is slim. Hunter’s solution was to thicken the plot with rape, infidelity, and religious controversy.

The result? Half Spring Awakening, half The Crucible: The Musical! I’m not arguing for verbatim adaptation, just pointing out that potentially good material got dumped in the Hudson River, including a country dance led by a “negro” fiddler.

Ichabod Crane (Sam Ludwig) is portrayed as a charming Connecticut atheist who brings secular tales like Gulliver’s Travels to a sleepy town of pious Dutch Americans. In both narratives he’s come to serve as village schoolmaster, though in Irving’s story, Crane was a devout dork who carried around Cotton Mather. His clever guise for wooing most-eligible-damsel Katrina Van Tassel (Whitney Bashor, here) was teaching her Psalmnody.

I’d call this scenario God’s gift to writers of musical theater. Instead, Ichabod and Katrina sing an inexplicable duet about a mermaid. (“No home on the land, alone in the sea, this mermaid lady of some court forever will be.”) This, and so many songs in the show, sound like Disney rejects.

The exception is a reoccurring setting of Irving’s own epigraph, featuring fantastic choral writing for the ensemble. Give the cast a lot of credit. Both the men and women are asked to sing awkwardly out of their range. (That’s fixable at a world premiere). Everybody’s dressed their post-Colonial best, thanks to costumes by Kathleen Geldard. The sets are spooky-minimalist with cool sound and visual effects. (Round House Theatre called. Can they borrow the burning books for Fahrenheit 451?) Sparks aren’t flying for the leads, however. Ludwig should smolder. Instead, it’s the audience who falls for the lovely soprano. Bashor is sincere and convincing in a show that’s, as the title unwittingly suggests, rather hollow.

We never see the murderous Hessian, just hear his horse snorting in the foggy wings. Signature’s creative team deserves a lot of credit for pulling off a well-funded doubleheader. But finding a story and developing a show that will draw audiences for all the right reasons? That’s still a specter of a musical, floating somewhere offstage.