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The Mysteries of Harris Burdick

This disappointing musical adaptation of Chris Van Allsburg's beloved children's book is far too reductive and literal-minded. logo
Ben Roseberry, Lucia Spina, Mitchell Jarvis, and
Romain Frugé in The Mysteries of Harris Burdick
(© Kevin Sprague)
What's the best way to kill a mystery? Explain it to death. And while you're at it, add a reductive, literal-minded back story, as Joe Calarco, Chris Miller, and Nathan Tysen -- the author/director, composer, and lyricist, respectively, of The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, now getting its world premiere at Barrington Stage Company's new Stage 2 -- have done in concretizing Chris Van Allsburg's 1984 collection of 14 intentionally ambiguous, dramatically charged chiaroscuro drawings.

In the book, each seemingly unrelated illustration, with its wisp of intriguing text, is presented as a spur to the imagination. Van Allsburg's over-arching conceit is that they're the work of an illustrator named Harris Burdick, who left them with a publisher, promising to return with the related stories -- but then vanished forever. Here, the musical's creative team steps in and connects the dots -- ploddingly -- and a tantalizing series of visual mini-mysteries becomes one big one: Does this musical really need to exist?

Here's the story: Ten-year-old Archie Smith (Ben Roseberry), an all-American, "adventure-prone" boy who appears in various tableaux, has vanished, leaving the Father (Romain Fruge, doubling as Harris Burdick, who may be one and the same) and the Mother (Catherine Porter) in a limiting state of perma-mourning for the remainder of the play. Life on their suburban block plods on as before, with some parents like the Husband (Mitchell Jarvis) -- who is not the Father -- growing extra-protective. Meanwhile, the Sister (Lucia Spina) tries to distract the Mother with, among other amusements, the prospect of an exotic trip. (Never mind that in the accompanying illustration, a menacing ocean liner threatens to plow Venice under.)

A scattershot book is only part of the show's problems. With a few exceptions the melodies are unmemorable and the lyrics are dull or clumsy and contrived. For example, in the Sister's song, "Missing in Venice," the phrase "the sounds of your neighbor's Pomeranian" is torturously paired with "Here the cuisine is strictly Mediterranean." Or take the too-whimsical "Oscar and Alphonse," in which a young girl (Nicole Van Giesen, doing her best) converses with two caterpillars who've been her "best friends for almost ten minutes."

More cohesive, if completely out of place, is a number in which Spina portrays a nightmare babysitter, one Miss Burrs, who refers to her charges as "snotties" and, under the guise of baking them a pumpkin pie, plans to scare them silly by carving a jack o'lantern. Once again, the scripted scenario ignores the thrust of the illustration, which evinces more wonder than horror. At least this song -- which resembles an outtake from Gorey Stories -- has a narrative thread. So does the very best number, "Under the Rug," in which Roseberry -- now playing an exterminator (a lowly "beer drinker with his GED") -- responds to a terrified caller reporting a "b-b-b-bump" creeping about in his carpet.

After methodically incorporating the bulk of Van Allsburg's images, even the adapters seem to tire of the gimmick and instead veer off into an extrapolation of "Jack and the Beanstalk," in which the keening Mother turns out to be the Harp. It's profound, no doubt, but also confusing. In short, this venture could benefit from a few return trips to the drawing board.

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