Michael Van Duzer Reviews - Theater

While the genre of serial killer musical remains small, the shows tend to be memorable and range from the light-hearted romp, Jack the Ripper, the satiric parody Silence, to the masterpiece, Sweeney Todd. The world premiere of Deadly by Writer Vanessa Claire Stewart and Composer Ryan Johnson is quite serious in its examination of the crimes of H.H. Holmes.

Holmes and his Murder Palace popped back into the popular consciousness with the publication of Erik Larson’s brilliant non-fiction book, The Devil in the White City. Holmes took advantage of his proximity to the Chicago World’s Fair to lure women into his hotel where he would gain their trust and later murder them. It was often for financial gain, occasionally to quiet their suspicions, and sometimes, one assumes, for kicks. His specially constructed building was honeycombed with secret passages, soundproof rooms where victims could be gassed, and underground torture chambers. There is no way of knowing how many women he killed there.

It is all too true that the killer often acquires a sheen of glamor. Stewart’s book deliberately shifts our focus from the perpetrator to the victims. During the course of the show, we are introduced to a group of six strong and independent women along with one young girl. They all meet Holmes (Keith Allan) upon their arrival in Chicago, and, for various reasons, become close to him. Even those who initially distrust him have no inkling that they are in danger.

From the opening, the sly and supercilious Holmes is in custody and being questioned by Frank Geyer (Eric Curtis Johnson), an understandably frustrated detective. The other male character in the plot is Benjamin Pitezel (David LM McIntyre, the role is shared with French Stewart), Holmes’ general factotum, and the engineer for some of the horrific construction oddities in the building.

Director Jaime Robledo keeps the many strands of these disparate lives, not to mention their afterlives, clear. But he deserves most praise for assembling such a strong and invested cast. The hardworking ladies consist of Cj Merriman, Brittney S. Wheeler, Kristyn Evelyn, the always watchable Erica Hanrahan-Ball, Ashley Diane, Rebecca Larsen, and Samantha Barrios. All give bold performances.

Allan and Johnson bring as much life to their one-note characters as they can. But McIntyre’s deeply flawed Pitezel easily steals the show as the only character with true inner conflict.

Johnson’s score thunders when it should and accompanies quieter moments appropriately, but it rarely soars. Stephen Gifford’s rolling staircases and tower provide a skeleton for Chicago, while the details are filled in by Corwin Evans’ effective projections and Linda Muggeridge’s saucy costumes.

With 22 songs and a running time of more than two-and-a-half hours, Deadly is overwritten. Stewart’s book tries to humanize the victims, but there are too many of them and most feel like sketches rather than actual human beings. Likewise, most of their stories are so similar that the dramatic tension simply flattens out. Johnson’s score might have helped with this, but it always remains in dutiful service to the story, never choosing to try a contrasting tone that might act as commentary.

It is not until the finale when Holmes ascends and then descends the steps to the gallows in a vaudevillian turn is there the black comic twist this tale needs. As he struts, part Mack the Knife, part Charles Guiteau, and part Roxie Hart, we suddenly glimpse what this musical might have been with a bit more irreverence than earnestness.

Sacred Fools at Broadwater    September 13 – November 2, 2019