By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Sherlock's Last Case
Plenty of musicals tell the story of an ugly girl yearning to be pretty. My Fair Lady, Funny Girl, The Apple Tree, Carnival, 110 in the Shade and most recently Shrek the Musical feature ugly ducklings longing for swanhood. How they get there usually requires the help of a love-struck and exceedingly handsome leading man who sees their "inner beauty," plus 10 or 20 big songs and, if they're lucky, some cooperation from designers of costumes, hair and makeup.
More's the pity for poor Violet, the rather dreary title character of a rather dreary musical drama about a young woman whose face bears the scar of a childhood encounter with an ax. Now onstage at Addison's WaterTower Theatre, the show takes a two-and-a-half-hour pilgrimage with Violet (played by Stacey Oristano) as she leaves her home in rural North Carolina on a bus bound for Tulsa and the church of a flashy TV faith-healer (Paul Taylor, in a wild-eyed homage to Benny Hinn). He will erase her scar with a touch, she believes. Love and happiness, naturally, will follow.
Sounds simple. If only. Based on Doris Betts' short story "The Ugliest Pilgrim," that was made into an Oscar-winning short film in 1981, the musical, whose book and lyrics are by Brian Crawley, patches together a crazy-quilt of conflicting themes. Violet's self-esteem issues are mixed up with commentary on racism (the story's set in 1964), sexual mores (Violet's religious but also an easy lay), the chicanery of televangelists and the beginnings of the Vietnam War.
What seems on the surface to be a near-operatic saga of how Violet learns to love herself, scar and all, also veers by the end into a pretty angry indictment of religion. After half a lifetime of prayers for healing, and the discovery that the big-time preacher's "miracles" are just a phony show, orphan Violet is left disillusioned, alone and still horribly disfigured. Faith shattered, she reluctantly reunites with another damaged soul, a black soldier (Markus Lloyd) whom she met on the bus trip, a neat but unsatisfying epilogue.
Composer Jeanine Tesori's score is a downer, all atonal, wandering tunes that borrow from gospel, bluegrass, "art songs" and other genres. (Tesori wrote this before her more successful Caroline, or Change.) Violet is close to being completely sung-through, or maybe the weakness of Crawley's book just makes it seem that way. If they meant it to feel as long as a cross-country bus trip, they succeeded.
Director James Paul Lemons and scenic designer Andy Redmon have done what they can to add visual flow to a piece that takes place mostly on a Greyhound. They've halved the audience sections at WaterTower with a runway stage. On one side are stair-stepped benches representing bus seats. Opposite is the towering altar of the mega-church where Violet hopes her prayers for instant beauty will be answered (someone really should have redirected her to a plastic surgeon). Much is left to the imagination, so don't be surprised when bus passengers walk off through the invisible windshield.
The show blends what's real for Violet and what isn't, overlapping past and present. Her 13-year-old self (played with impressive vocals by young Ruby Westfall) comes onstage to sing with the grownup Violet. Her dead father (played with gentle grace by Sonny Franks) returns in the final church scene for a powerful solo, "That's What I Could Do," about how he tried and failed to help his daughter after the accident that scarred her. We are inside her mind, viewing her memories.
In the leading role, Oristano is quirky, adopting a flat affect and choppy cadence that make her sound like the offspring of Forrest Gump and Jodie Foster's Nell. Singing, she tends to go from whisper to loud belt in nothing flat. But at least she's not singing flat anymore, which was a negative in previous performances in WaterTower musicals. Oristano's best moments here are in duets with Westfall and in dramatic scenes with Lloyd, who has played the role of the soldier twice before.
Oristano's greatest accomplishment in this show is how she manages to look fetching in minimal makeup, stringy dishwater-blond hair and a shapeless print dress and dun-colored cardigan, another costuming horror from the local master of unflattering theatrical fashion, designer Michael A. Robinson. Whatever show he's working on, Robinson dresses women to resemble the bedraggled subjects in Dorothea Lang photos. At least for Violet, that's appropriate.
There is not one bad moment in Sherlock's Last Case at Irving's ICT MainStage; there are 135 of them, ticking by ever so slowly. Community theater, with almost everyone volunteering their time, shouldn't also force the paying audience to give up more than two hours to sloppy performances, haphazard tech work and a script with more mold than that wheel of cheese on YouTube.
ICT only recently had one of the best shows of 2008, director Michael Serrecchia's gorgeous staging of the musical Nine. So what happened? How could a company that did that turn around and do shit like Sherlock?
Let's examine a few of the madcap moments in this disaster du jour, starting with the performance of Arthur Peden as Sherlock Holmes. Without a sniff of a British accent, Peden wanders the stage in a befuddled haze. Stumbling over both his lines and the rug in the drawing room of 221-B Baker St. (Wade Giampa's set isn't half bad), the actor often appears to doze off mid-sentence. He keeps his eyes shut much of the time, even when walking or standing, and he frequently turns his back on the audience, perhaps to get a good look around to see where he is once he's awake. It's a bizarre performance, but not bizarre enough to be interesting.