There never was a Jack the Ripper, you know. Between 1888 and 1891 in London’s Whitechapel, 18 women were killed by sharp instruments. Some victims were prostitutes. Five were thought to have been murdered by the same person. He, or she, was never found, never brought to justice.
Suspects continue to be named, however, most recently in a new book called They All Love Jack: Busting the Ripper by Bruce Robinson, director and screenwriter of Withnail and I. He believes the killer was a Freemason organist named Michael Maybrick. Other authors, investigators and “Ripperologists,” from George Bernard Shaw to Patricia Cornwell, have pinned the killings on: a Polish butcher, a German hairdresser, a poet, a doctor, painter Walter Sickert and the Duke of Clarence, grandson of Queen Victoria, plus about 20 others.
Reinventing the gothic villain is just good showbiz. “Jack” was and is a media invention used for his surefire entertainment value in books, plays and screenplays, as reliable a draw as Sherlock Holmes, who now hunts the Ripper in a video game.
Saucy Jack’s back in a couple of shows right now on local stages. The fun one is the popcorn-throwing melodrama at Pocket Sandwich Theatre. Jack the Ripper: Monster of Whitechapel delivers a lively revival of an old script by Pocket’s late founder, Joe Dickinson.
You don’t go to Pocket expecting flawless production values and subtle acting (if you do, prepare to be disappointed). You go because food and drinks are cheap (seating is at tables and booths around a small thrust stage) and you’re urged to throw free popcorn and hiss and boo at the characters.
Pocket’s Ripper is heavy on broad comedy and light on violence. All killings happen offstage and the identity of the Ripper is kept secret until the last minute. Plot twist: It’s not who you think it’ll be.
The cast, directed by Nick Haley, knows how to punch silly dialogue. “She’s been gutted like a fish!” says a witness over a body. “Holy mackerel!”
Servants Phillip and Polly Poole (played well with silly walks by Jake Shanahan and Lauren Hearn) investigate and implicate a crooked commissioner (Michael Roe). Or perhaps a doctor (James Wallace). Or a drooler named Hogarth (exceedingly funny Daniel Baugh, hugging a rolling pin). Rhonda Durant plays every victim. Charli Armstrong, Hannah Brake, Kelly Moore Clarkson, Quinn Coffman, Evan Figg and David Helms make dandy snobs, knobs and nabobs.
Dickinson’s play alludes to some Masonic elements in the murders, echoed in Rodney Dobbs’ scenic design. Clues, obvious or not, hardly matter. The killer could be a panda with wings and Pocket’s giddy crowds would fling popcorn at it and leave satisfied.
Years in the making, Creep, a two-act Ripper-centric musical by Dallas composer Donald Fowler, has finally opened at Addison’s WaterTower Theatre. There’ve been several staged readings of this show over the past half-decade. So it’s hard to understand why this big production, which should be rough-edge-free, is such a mess. A lavish mess, but a mess.
Opening night, mics went out, furniture collapsed under actors. Sound mix and diction were Matilda-level disasters. (The recent national tour of Matilda at the Winspear had such garbled audio, patrons were requesting refunds.) Sit house right at Creep and conductor Kevin Gunter’s 10-piece band, hidden behind a thin partition, overwhelms onstage voices. House left can’t hear band or singers. Amplified voices that can be heard seem to float thinly out of speakers far away from center stage. (I was seated on the second row behind orchestrator Dan Kazemi, who said he was upset about the sound woes.)
Fowler’s 21-song score boasts some haunting melodies and distinctive harmonies, though he leans more toward the Frank Wildhorn (Dracula, Jekyll & Hyde) style of minor-key overkill than, say, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hummable Puccini rip-offs. Thing is, Fowler’s lyrics are unintelligible from the first song, “What We’d Have You Consider,” performed by the 11-member chorus and, presumably, filled with exposition one needs to hear before the next two and a half hours of plot turns. Patty Breckenridge, as Cockney slattern Polly Nichols, is a major character introduced with another incoherent story-song.
Good singer-actors Jonathan Bragg (as a wealthy arts patron and possible suspect), Daniel Rowan (piano instructor, ditto) and Christia Mantzke (whore-turned-society-matron) do sing clearly when facing out front, which only reveals banal lyrics such as “It’s a truth I will wear like my makeup.” Director Kate Galvin and choreographer Kelly McCain keep the leather-and-laced chorus onstage a lot, squirming like extra kitties from Cats. That’s distracting.
The plot is built around lonely rich girl Mary, dressed in some kind of Estonian folk-dance garb and portrayed with wide-eyed guile by Sarah Elizabeth Smith (another lovely singer whose words hit and miss). Mary’s so wispy she seems to have arisen from the overactive fog machine. Amid the Ripper nightmare, she falls in love with the wrong man, but nothing that happens to her at the end is foreshadowed in Fowler’s turbid writing.
One stunning element from a previous Creep reading — tenor Stephen Bates’ chilling solo, singing lines from the infamous “Dear Boss” letter London police thought came from the killer — is now performed by the undulating ensemble. Couldn’t understand a syllable. That made me stabby.
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