Adapted by Joe Meno from his popular novel, the musical introduces us to Billy Argo (Stephen Gregory Smith), a former "boy detective." Now he's 30 and newly released from a long stay in a mental institution. Billy returns to his small hometown to deal with the one mystery he could not untangle: the jolting suicide of his sister Caroline (Margo Seibert). While trying to piece together the reasons leading to Caroline's death, Billy re-inflames old wounds in the town and explores love and loss.
Scenic designer Derek McLane accents the Grover's Corners-gone-bad vibe by filling a barren stage with dollhouse-sized buildings, vaguely New England in style, even if the setting is New Jersey. This makes each of the looming residents, and their stories, bigger than their town.
Adam Gwon's score is often derivative and formulaic, sounding like generic pop, with some 1950s-TV-variety-show schmaltz mixed in. For example, "Mr. Mammoth's Life-Like Mustache" is a silly march that would be at home on a children's TV show and adds unnecessarily to the show's inflated running time.
There are some exceptions: "Old Friends," sung by Smith and Thomas Adrian Simpson (as the evil-but-addled Professor Von Golum) is a music-hall dance number that puts Simpson's deeply textured baritone to good use. "As Long As You Are Here" is subtle, its comic overtones leading into a poignant exploration of loneliness, especially as sung by Anika Larsen, who gives the show's most fully realized, dimensional portrait as Penny Maple, an eccentric, lonely office cleaner.
Smith is mostly fine, exploring an odd character who is both high-strung and tense, yet engaging. However, he occasionally strays into cartoon territory -- which director Joe Calarco should rein in. The overplaying -- which also affects some of the other cast members -- undercuts the emotional resonance and melancholy that is important to the characters' journeys. Seibert never falls into that trap, however, and is always winsome and enigmatic as the doomed Caroline.
Calarco is well aided by choreographer Karma Camp, particularly in the energetic 15-minute opening sequence laying out the story and introducing characters. And while the show has some flaws, fans of the novel should turn out to see how the story holds up onstage, while the quirky nature of the tale should attract new audiences.