Todd Waite in Sherlock Holmes(Photo © T. Charles Erickson)
Todd Waite in Sherlock Holmes
(Photo © T. Charles Erickson)
What becomes a legend most? In the case of the world's only consulting detective, it's not the 1899 William Gillette play Sherlock Holmes, now being lavishly revived by the Alley Theatre in Houston. After more than a century of seeing Holmes portrayed in other media, including the Basil Rathbone movies and the excellent, authoritative Granada Television series starring Jeremy Brett, Gillette's melodrama seems rather creaky and thin. But it's fun and, overall, an enjoyable night at the theater.

Sherlock Holmes is billed as being based on the stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The Baker Street Irregulars in the audience, however, will notice strong plot lines from only one: "A Scandal in Bohemia," minus the mysterious Irene Adler. There is also a foreshadowing of "The Final Problem," in which Holmes meets his arch-nemesis Professor Moriarty in a fight to the death (presumably) at Reichenbach Falls. Rather than a dramatic adaptation of the Doyle stories, though, Sherlock Holmes is a piece of history, a look at how a legendary character evolved from the page to the stage, film, and television.

Although two actors before him had played the role on stage, Gillette was the one who made it his own. He was the only playwright to dramatize the character with Doyle's endorsement and he played the role for 36 years, in the theater and in a silent film, until he was 72. Ten years later, he became the first radio Holmes, reprising his role for new audiences. Gillette was the man who put a Meerschaum pipe in Holmes's mouth, dressed him in a deerstalker and Inverness cape, and gave him the famous line "Elementary, my dear Watson" -- words that drew the biggest hand of the evening at the Alley opening. (Too bad Gillette didn't have the foresight to include the Master's first words to Dr. John H. Watson: "You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.")

In the Alley production, the continuation of the Gillette tradition falls to company member Todd Waite. Tall, thin, and lanky, with all the required accoutrements, he is indeed the personification of what most people have come to imagine as Holmes. He does everything that we expect Holmes to do: astound people with his lightning-fast deductive reasoning, trick friends and foes with his clever disguises, outwit his enemies in ingenious ways, and shoot up with cocaine to rescue his mind from boredom. But unlike many other depictions of Holmes as a cold reasoning machine, Waite's shows an ability to be tender -- and to love.

Holmes's soft side is most evident in his first scene with Dr. Watson, played with common-sense affability by company member Jeffrey Bean. When the newly married Watson arrives at 221B Baker Street for a visit, Holmes greets his old friend with a rush of affection and then surprises him once again with his deductive reasoning. The affection between the two is genuine; Watson is portrayed here as no befuddled idiot but, rather, an Everyman who admires his friend's talent and shows his concern when Holmes injects himself with another dose of cocaine.

Serving as contrast to the light and reason of Holmes's world is the dark, underground lair of his enemy, Professor Moriarty. This is the most effective of the five rotating sets in Vincent Mountain's design, yet it illustrates a basic problem of the production: Moriarty is sometimes more interesting than Holmes. Played by company member James Black in white skullcap makeup and with a kind of stealthy menace, this Moriarty looks like an evil egghead. The effect is heightened by Rui Rita's lighting, which suffuses Moriarty's face with a creepy orange light that makes him look like a Halloween nightmare. And when Black begins to speak, his calm, monotone words send shivers up your spine.

Todd Waite and Jeffrey Beanin Sherlock Holmes(Photo © T. Charles Erickson)
Todd Waite and Jeffrey Bean
in Sherlock Holmes
(Photo © T. Charles Erickson)
In comparison, Holmes can sometimes seem a little silly. That's because the mood of the production moves unevenly from high camp to dark drama. The first performer to appear in the opening scene, Josie de Guzman, is so over the top in both her movements and delivery that you almost think you're watching a parody. Waite, too, affects some goofy poses that call to mind a precocious schoolboy seeking attention. (For what it's worth, director Gregory Boyd has commented that the play is not camp but a sincere dramatization of the Holmesian world.)

However, once the production has settled down, there is little to do but enjoy it. John Tyson, in dark glasses and white fright wig, delivers an amusing performance as the blind safecracker Sidney Prince. David Born makes an ominous butler to the villainous Madge Larrabee (de Guzman) and James Larrabee (Paul Hope). Elizabeth Heflin is suitably fierce and defiant as the damsel in distress, Alice Faulkner, and Tony Oller brings youthful energy and humor to his role of Billy, Holmes's chief Baker Street Irregular (a part once played by a young Charlie Chaplin).

Filling out the cast are James Belcher as both Moriarty's dim-witted henchman, Craigin, and Watson's butler, Parsons; Philip Lehl as the professor's young partner in crime, Bassick; Julia Krohn as Therese, the Larrabees' distressed maid; Daniel Magill as Count von Stalburg, a handsome player in the royal mystery; Charles Krohn as the stately Sir Edward Leighton; and Alley veteran Bettye Fitzpatrick as a lusty old woman on the street. Costume designer Fabio Toblini dresses each in a nostalgic way, whether it's the ladies parading about in extravagant silks with feathered hats, Holmes in his blue-silk dressing gown, or Watson in middle-class suit and boots.

And what would Sherlock Holmes be without some London fog? Vincent Mountain, who created another Victorian world for the musical Jekyll & Hyde, provides a perfect pea-soup environment and a whole lot more. The drawing room at 221B Baker Street is almost complete with Holmes's chemistry lab, violin, cluttered mantel, and drug paraphernalia -- but if the Persian slipper stuffed with tobacco was there, I missed it.