Wednesday, November 9, 2016

"Baker Street"

Baker Street
Jerome Coopersmith (Book)
Marian Grudeff & Raymond Jessel (Music & Lyrics)
Adapted from Stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Michael Monagle (as Sherlock Holmes) & Dan Seda (as Dr. Watson)
San Francisco is so lucky to have a theatre company like 42nd Street Moon whose key mission is to revive forgotten, rarely-if-ever-performed musicals – some from a lifetime or two ago, some from as late the 1960s.  Audiences walk into the Eureka Theatre ready to relive a different era, to hum along to once-familiar tunes, and to discover some hidden gem never seen or heard previously.  And the loyal attendees at the Moon also understand that there are times when a production, no matter how well staged, tends to prove why the musical has not been oft re-produced in the decades since its initial debut.

The current offering at 42nd Street Moon is an example of such a musical -- one that is entertaining enough with its delightful production elements and with a couple of outstanding stars among its enthusiastic cast of performers but one that never quite conquers the weaknesses inherent in its original creation.  The meticulous details crammed into Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved and wildly popular stories about Sherlock Holmes become a bit tedious, boring, and even confusing when adapted by Jerome Coopersmith for the stage in the 1965 musical, Baker Street.  And, while there are a couple of notable exceptions, most of the music by Marlon Grudeff and Raymond Jessel is nothing that will be recalled in the shower the next day.  Baker Street, as staged by 42nd Street Moon, is a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours; but the company has habitually mounted other, more memorable and worthy revivals in its long relationship with the Great American Musical.

Set in 1897 London during the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, Baker Street is loosely based on Sir Doyle’s “A Scandal in Bohemia.”  The socially awkward, famed detective Sherlock Holmes is a genius of sorts who sees mystery-breaking clues where others only see a speck of mud or a random smudge.  He is once again pitted against his archenemy, Professor Moriarty, and aided by his loyal and outwardly amiable sidekick, Mr. Watson, to solve a major crime in the making.  Along the way, attempts on his life come dangerously close to eliminating the serious-minded sleuth while a beautiful American actress comes even closer to stealing his reluctant heart.  Twists and turns in the plot; clever disguises of wigs, wraps, and make-up; and many explanations by Holmes of how he figures out who is the unseen person coming up the stairs or where a stranger was born are all included in the tale that unfolds before us.  And in this telling, there is very much a feeling of a classic American melodrama (but set in England) with its stock characters of the hero, the damsel in distress, the romantic element between the two, and of course, the nasty villain.

One of the best elements in the Moon’s version of this Sherlock Holmes story is the backdrop of projections that show the illustrated pages from Watson’s journal – the diary into which we see the good doctor documenting the details of the story as it unfolds around him.  Amy O’Hanlon has created period-perfect illustrations of the scenes that fill a giant book’s pages across the back wall of the stage.  Joined with the scenic, lighting, and projection designs of Kevin August Landesman, we see one of Sir Conan Doyle’s stories come to three-dimensional life as properties to enhance the beautifully drawn pages emerge from the dark to become set elements on the stage.  The storybook aspects are cleverly supported by Cindy Goldfield’s directorial decision to use actors in the background to produce in melodrama fashion such sound effects as horse trots on cobblestone or ferocious waves on the coast of Dover.

As the chipper, curious narrator of our story, Dr. Watson, Dan Seda is effusive in emotion, eager for chitchat, and enthusiastic for all those in a skirt – all in direct contrast with his 221-B Baker Street flat mate, Sherlock Holmes.  When expressing himself in song (as in “A Married Man”), Mr. Seda sings with clear purpose and a voice bearing a pleasant edge and crisp tones. 

The Yin to Watson’s Yang is of course the great detective himself, Sherlock Holmes, and Michael Monagle displays fully the many contrasts in not only his much taller, more posture-perfect stature than the shorter, easy-going Watson but also in his air of being somewhat distant and detached from those around him.  His Sherlock sings in half song/speech style in the opening “It’s Simple” (much akin to the 1964 Professor Higgens of My Fair Lady) and speaks with a highly affected, back-of-the-throat tone that frankly sounds more manufactured than natural.   When he does break into fuller song (“Cold Clear Night”), the result is passable but not up to par with the vocals of his fellow cast members. 

Sherlock is handed an incredibly complex script at times, full of observations, clues, and minutiae that are often rattled off with just the right matter-of-fact, ‘but-of-course’ manner by Mr. Monagle.  The issue is that sometimes the actor (at least in the performance I attended) slightly stumbled or had a slight, uncalled-for pause as he faithfully tried to spill out the many, many words – always recovering nicely but doing so too often not to notice.  All in all, this Sherlock has the outward look and feel of the great Holmes but does not seem fully natural to the core in the role.

Michael Monagle & Abby Haug
Fortunately, along with Dr. Watson, others in the cast are a proper fit for their characters.  At the top of this list is Abby Haug as Irene Adler, the visiting American actress who becomes a willing assistant in helping Sherlock solve his mystery and falls in love with him along the way.  The best songs of the musical are given to Irene; and Ms. Haug delivers them with a fresh, lyrical voice that rings forth with personality-plus built in.  Her flexibility of delivery is tested and proven exceptional in the deliciously amusing number “Letters,” where she takes on the voices of various admirers as she sings their written epistles to her – all done with great tongue-in-cheek and taunting as she strives to get Sherlock’s goat while also hopefully making him a bit jealous.  Later, when singing  “I’d Do It Again,” Irene sings with a voice that swoops and swings in wonderful rolls of the scales, with the ability to bring the Gay 90s stage feeling into her vocals in authentic and believable manner.

Andrew Mondello (center, as Wiggins) & The Irregulars
Another songster with penetrating tones that have big grins, quick wit, and a bit of devilishness all built into the delivery is Andrew Mondello as Wiggins.   This ruffian of the streets, along with his gang of four, runs interference and carries out needed sleuthing assignments for his boss, Sherlock himself.  My Fair Lady (which premiered in 1964 a year before Baker Street took to the stage) is once again recalled as the numbers that Wiggins and his “Irregulars” deliver in choreographic style and hilarious song look and sound a lot like those of Alfred P. Doolittle and his Cockney pals.  In “Leave It to Us, Guv” and “Roof Space/Sixty Long Years,” Wiggins and the Irregulars (Tobiah Richkind, Alison Quin, Stephen Vaught and Jesse Cortez) sing with spunk and pizzazz and clown around in well-delivered choreography (designed and directed by Cindy Goldfield), generating a lot of energy for the show as well as chuckles from the appreciating audience.

There is not a lot of surprise in Baker Street.  We all know the master detective of all times will solve the mysteries placed before him and save the free world once again from evil.  But in 42nd Street Moon’s Baker Street, there are the required laughs and some mild intrigue, a number of fun diversions, and a bevy of stock characters of yesteryear’s London to entertain us and to hold our attention.  The fact that the script gets a bit bogged down in too many details and wordy sentences at times, that the songs are for the most part not memorable, and that the lead character is a bit weaker than the rest of the overall excellent cast in the end does not mean that a good time will not be had by all – especially all those Moon fans who thrive on seeing yet another bygone musical rarely seen on other stages.

Rating: 3 E

Baker Street continues for 42nd Street Moon through November 20, 2016 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at or by calling the box office at 415-255-8207.

Photo credits by Ben Krantz Studios

No comments:

Post a Comment