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The Hollow and The Boy Detective Fails

Virginia's Signature Theatre offers two intriguing world premiere musicals in repertory. logo
Sam Ludwig in The Hollow
(© Scott Suchman)
Hunter Foster and Matt Conner's The Hollow, one of two world premiere musicals now in rotating repertory at Virginia's Signature Theatre, is a dark gem. It's an entirely engrossing and deeply powerful horror tale (based loosely on Washington Irving's classic short story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow") set to haunting, gorgeously ethereal music.

While the work explores modern issues, particularly fear and how it may be used to create and retain power, we're still in 1790, in the secluded community of Sleepy Hollow, New York. Residents there are still terrorized by the specter of a headless horseman who rides through the night on a mighty black stallion, dispatching those who aren't "right with God." Foster makes it clear, though, that both the power and the paranoia these villagers experienced and exploited are still very much with us over two hundred years later.

The Hollow shares some of the ambiance of Conner's previous musical, Nevermore, but here, some of the lyrics are unadorned, while others blossom into an eerie dimension, sometimes carried by wafts of classical-sounding music. The effect is almost unremittingly hypnotic.

Among the score's standouts are "Legend," which begins as a melodic, measured ballad and builds to a robust anthem; "Perhaps," which is an incisive voyage through the power of imagination, utilizing repeated musical themes, call-and-response vocalizations, and dynamic energy; and "Goodnight Prayer," which wrings vibrant emotion from a simple rendering of "The Lord's Prayer" that is both startling and soothing.

The entire cast -- many of whom do double duty in both shows -- cannot be faulted, starting with Sam Ludwig as schoolteacher Ichabod Crane, Whitney Bashor as lovely, sheltered Katrina Van Tassel, and talented youngster Noah Chiet as young Pieter. Evan Casey is smooth and quietly menacing as Brom Van Brunt, bristling with unyielding, fundamentalist rectitude that obscures his demons, while Harry A. Winter is enjoyable as Katrina's forward-thinking father, Baltus Van Tassel.

Director Matthew Gardiner harnesses his cast's energies, allowing them a measured, deliberate energy at first that suggests there is vast power being held at bay. When the force is finally released, it explodes in psychological violence. Yes, The Hollow is a horror show, but it's the horrors found within us which do the scaring here, not monsters or special effects.
James Gardiner, Stephen Gregory Smith,
and Margo Seibert in
The Boy Detective Fails
(© Scott Suchman)
The Boy Detective Fails, like The Hollow, shows us an insulated town where the familiar, old ways -- and even some of the townsfolk -- are vanishing. Indeed, at times, the musical seems like nothing more than a surreally sinister version of Our Town.

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.

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