Through Sat 12/30
In October 1978 Will Eisner published A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories. The fictional tale ushered in a new venue, the graphic novel, using the drawing media to tell tales. In contrast to most “comics,” (e.g., “Peanuts,” “Mary Worth,” “Little Orphan Annie”), which tend to be serialized, graphic novels, they are self-contained stories.
Tony Lee and Dan Boultwood wrote a quartet of these novels, aimed mainly at the tween audience, which are spin-offs on Sherlock Holmes stories centering on the Baker Street Irregulars, a bunch of street urchins led by teenaged Wiggins, whom Holmes paid to collect data for his investigations.
In the Lee and Boultwood series, The Adventure of the Missing Detective, The Adventure of the Phantom of Drury Lane, The Adventure of the Charge of the Old Brigade and “The Adventure of the Family Reunion, Wiggins is joined by Pockets, a female pickpocket; Ash, an apprentice chimney sweep; Chen, a boy-wonder Chinatown inventor; Tiny a plus-sized butcher’s assistant; and Eliza, the granddaughter of a famous London sleuth.
Cleveland Heights’ national award-winning playwright Eric Coble’s adaptation of Sherlock Holmes: The Baker Street Irregulars is a melodramatic, tween-centric “who done it” play with villains, cops, mistaken identities, subterfuge, heroic acts, dangerous situations, budding love stories and twists and turns. Though the script has been produced by other theaters, Dobama’s staging is a “kind of” world premiere, as Coble sat in while the action evolved, making adaptations to the original work.
The tale? It is December 1891, shortly after the “disappearance/death” of Sherlock Holmes, following a battle with Moriarty, his arch-nemesis. The street urchins take up the challenge of defending the Victorian city against crimes. They are aided by Inspector Lestrade, who questions the youths’ ability to solve crimes, the mysterious Irene Adler and the steadfast Dr. John Watson.
Director Nathan Motta keeps the action generally lively, has worked with his actors to let loose of reality and play the scenes with stylized acting, though a more comic book approach might have added more audience involvement. He also planned with his technical staff to create visually interesting effects. Though there is a somewhat excessive use of projections, sometimes causing an almost roller-coaster queasiness, the visuals generally work.
Christopher Bohan gives yet another strong performance, following up his starring roles in Dobama’s How to Be a Respectable Junkie and The Flick, in his dual performance as Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes. Ray Caspio is evil incarnate as both Morris Wiggins and Moriarty. Ananias J. Dixon properly overplays as Inspector Lestrade. Laura Starnik makes Mayhew live. Neda Spears is fine as Mrs. Hudson, Holmes’ landlady.
Tenth-grader Colin Frothingham, with a ton of stage experience in his background, excels as Wiggins. This is a young man who has a promising future as a Thespian. Elise Pakiela delights as Pockets.
Fortunately, Motta unearthed some adult performers who are young-looking. Miranda Leeann (Eliza Mayhew) and David Gretchko (Tiny) are on target in their portrayals.
Undertaking a script such as Sherlock Holmes: The Baker Street Irregulars by a professional theatre like Dobama has its challenges. The show is child-actor dominant. In contrast to community theaters, where parents and grandparents can imagine that their little ones as “better than Broadway,” equity theaters don’ t have the latitude of praising those who are young and cute, but not of professional quality.
In the case of Irregulars, one younger cast member tended to stay in character when speaking lines, but when not emoting, eyes wandered the audience and there was a lack of reaction to the lines of others. Another is adorable and gets laughs, but a high-pitched voice and rapid speech makes lines almost unintelligible. Hopefully, as the show progresses, Motta will spend some time aiding these fledglings.
Coble’s script is ideal for community theaters and should get lots of stagings. The story can be of interest and has roles that are in the amateur theater wheelhouse.
CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Sherlock Holmes: The Baker Street Irregulars gets a good staging at Dobama that will be of interest for parents and grandparents looking for a theatrical experience for their tweens and younger teens during this season. It is a nice option for the much-done holidays shows that are staged again and again. It is not great theater, but it could make for an entertaining evening of entertainment.
Sherlock Holmes: The Baker Street Irregulars runs through Sat 12/30 at Dobama Theatre. Call 216-932-3396 or dobama.org for tickets.
[Written by Roy Berko, member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle]