Signature Theatre’s ‘Boy Detective’ doesn’t fail and ‘The Hollow’ isn’t sleepy

Not since Harry, Hermione and Ron has there been as charming an evil-fighting trio as Billy Argo, Caroline and Fenton, in Signature Theatre‘s The Boy Detective FailsThe world premiere musical is a win-win-win for its whimsical story, score and set.

Photo by Scott Suchman, Playbill.com. From left, James Gardiner as Fenton, Stephen Gregory Smith as Billy Argo and Margo Seibert as his sister, Caroline.

Boyish Stephen Gregory Smith was born to play Billy — part Ralph from A Christmas Story and part Jack Salmon, the haunted dad of the murdered teen in The Lovely Bones. In the case of Billy Argo, he knows his beloved sister took her own life, but despite his crime-solving and truth-telling afflictions, the 30-year-old character is stuck — facing his biggest mystery of all: “Why?”

Smith interprets his character’s arrested development, somewhere between his ‘tweens and post-traumatic OCD, never as robotic or smart-alecky but with a bewitching mix of genius and goofiness. He extracted giddy tears from this audience member with a mere shrug.

The story is faithful to Joe Meno‘s 2006 achingly tender novel — no wonder, the Chicago author adapted it for stage. Our family was lucky to get clued in two summers ago while it was in workshop at the Tony-winning Arlington, Va., theater. So delighted to hear it would be mounted in repertory with The Hollow this season — with a superb ensemble ricocheting between shows —  we snapped up tickets, even flying in our party from Chicago and New Orleans during Hurricane Irene — a family dinner-date night topping $1,000.

Probably the best compliment to Meno, composer-lyricist Adam Gwon, and the players who presented it in 2009, unadorned with only cheat sheets on music stands, was we felt this debut was our second time fully seeing it. Brilliant scenic designer Derek McLane accessorized our imaginations with the trappings of funky dollhouses, a freakish funhouse and a gloomy cavern where you felt the chill and drips pinging off the psyche. Among my favorite moments in the score, besides its inventive and poetic songs, came in the carnivalesque accompaniment to Billy’s workplace and squeaky-swing sounds from the strings.

“Team Fails”: We had registered for the preview weekend “Boy Detective” scavenger hunt, which was blown by Hurricane Irene. We entered virtually … and, despite getting the answers right, lost on the draw.

James Gardiner, a Signature pillar and twin brother of Hollow director Matt Gardiner, proves a master of disguise as sidekick Fenton, contorting his rubber face to hilarious effect. Margo Seibert as the complicated Caroline is ethereal and elegant, with a voice to match. Anika Larsen is adorable, if a bit breathy, as Billy’s romantic foil, pickpocket Penny Maple — but she left my 23-year-old daughter, Miki, a singer-actress herself, breathless. Miki’s a HUGE fan of Zanna, Don’t! (show of hands?) and it turns out Larsen played Roberta, alongside Queer Eye‘s Jai Rodriguez, so she kept reminding us we were in the presence of musical-theater royalty.

But I bow to Thomas Adrian Simpson, king of villains as Professor von Golum (and creepy Charles Claassen in The Hollow). A standout vocally with his honey-rich baritone, he’s as wacky as Christopher Lloyd’s Emmett Brown on quaaludes. Shout-out also to textured character actor Harry A. Winter — best thing about writing parts for older actors is you can find the best of the best of the pros.

See production photos at Playbill.com

Walk-up coverage at Washington Post.com

Boy Detective‘s play-date mate, The Hollow, adapted by composer-lyricist Matt Conner and book writer Hunter Foster from Washington Irving‘s legendary Legend of Sleepy Hollow, takes more liberties with its source material.

As far as I’m concerned, this creative duo can take any liberties they like. Conner, a frolicking fixture in the Signature lobby where he “tickles the ivories,” famously doesn’t read music. His lush, lilting melodies are puzzled out and orchestrated by others.

The Hollow’s seamless, fluttering score, airier than other Conner works (including Nevermore, his ode to Edgar Allan Poe being restaged Oct. 7-30 at Artspace Falls Church) is relentlessly hypnotic — but in no way “sleepy.” The audience feels dunked into an undulating, raging river. And the galloping story in the hands of Foster — yes, Sutton’s brother, but I’m guessing the more aesthetic and well-read of the multitalented siblings — packs a wallop to match. Against its eerie backdrop of skeletal branches and leaf litter, with sound and lighting effects conjuring up demons, the show is confined to a single act — which seems almost an act of mercy. By that I mean I’m unsure the tension could be sustained much longer without something snapping.

The ensemble’s collective vocal chops — especially known-goddess Tracy Lynn Olivera and Whitney Bashor (as Katrina), whose riff on The Lord’s Prayer brought me nearly to my knees — surpass anything I’ve heard at Signature. (Except maybe Chess.)

Darin Ellis, a rising D.C.-area theater star who was taken from us too soon.

Sam Ludwig, as interloper Ichabod Crane, is refreshingly genteel, not the cartoonish buffoon of childhood memory. With his bottomless knapsack of books and perky wit, his is a sweet voice of reason — almost Jeffersonian — amid Tarrytown’s puritanical zombies.

I couldn’t help but see weird parallels to The Music Man: the deceptive outsider Harold Hill disturbing the peace among Iowa’s most stubborn, while channeling a fair, innocent boy to woo the most unattainable bachelorette in town. But that dream bubble burst with the shuddering realization that Crane REALLY GOT TROUBLE among radicals who burn books and are capable of worse than tarrin’- and-featherin’-and-ridin’-him-out-on-a-rail.

The only void in The Hollow is the notable absence of Darin Ellis, who originated the role of the village drunk, here brusquely shouldered by Russell Sunday. In a tribute to the promising Ellis, who died unexpectedly last summer at age 24, the character name has been changed to “Ellis” Buren. Bravo, class act, guys.

This year’s boy-wonder discovery, no doubt, is Noah Chiet, playing precocious Peter, or precociously playing Peter. And can’t overlook the workhorse of the cast, versatile Sherri Edelen — loved her in Joe Calarco’s Walter Cronkite Is Dead and, if I’m not mistaken, it was she who pinch-hitted as Penny in Signature’s Open House on July 23.

The twin whodunnits left some patrons scratching their heads — but charismatic chameleon Evan Casey (nailing Killer Kowalzavich in Boy Detective and Brom Van Brunt in The Hollow, among other roles) seems the likeliest suspect. Typecast, anyone?

We’d put Billy on the case of solving the murky endings, but on nights when he’s not center stage, he’s been spied tending bar.

Both shows run through Oct. 16. For tickets, visit: http://www.signature-theatre.org/tickets

Bonus feature for those reading to the end: Here is a Boy Detective fan’s interpretation of the novel’s set-up, which loosely translates into a nine-minute opening in the Joe Calarco-directed masterpiece.

And here is a Boy Detective song already making rounds as a cabaret scene — unfortunately not performed by Smith and Larsen. (Can’t wait for the original cast recording. Broadway, here comes the little show that can!)

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