Addison — Watertower Theatre and Donald Fowler are both new at new musicals. Creep is WaterTower’s first time mounting a major production of one by a local writer, and Fowler’s first time writing one. But, if it shouldn’t be counted against someone that it’s their first attempt, it shouldn’t be counted for them either.
In the end, it isn’t the road that matters; it’s where it meets the rubber. For Creep, though equipped with an experienced driver in director Kate Galvin, the skid marks begin at the starting line.
That can happen when you give her all you’ve got from the get go.
In this case, scenic designer Jeffrey Schmidt’s fog-flooded stage is invaded by an inexplicably prowling chorus expositing in operatic strains. It’s a trifecta of unintelligibility: partly a problem of the sound reinforcement, partly a problem of the Liberace-lush music and partly poor enunciation.
The whys mount in an overwhelming wall when you try to mesh the Jack-the-Ripper’s-London lyrics and the Dickens-meets-American Apparel costumes by designers Derek Whitener and Victor Newman Brockwell. But what really puts the Spandau in the Ballet are choreographer Kelly McCain’s self-conscious movements that lie somewhere between Sweeney Todd city and Cabaret sass.
It almost like a staging of one of those murder mystery games where anyone could be the killer—but with music. Director Galvin has both hands on the wheel but has difficulty steering this chorus through Watertower’s thrust configuration.
Dead Man’s Curve, indeed.
The show gains traction in the smaller scenes and solos. Abby Chapman is first to get her feet firmly on the ground as the young girl in the leaves, Mary, who has been violated. Christia Mantzke adds to the solidity with her powerfully protective Mother. To flash forward in time and tone, Mary, grown up, is taken over by the beautiful Sarah Elizabeth Smith.
What was once a foreboding fog fest turns downright Downton drawing room light.
Mother tries to keep up appearances despite the gossips circling at the hat shop (Kathryn Taylor Rose punctuating the comic tone here). When she delivers Mary to the piano tutor, Christian (Daniel Rowan), she can’t help but throw herself at him, though it’s clear she’s barking up the wrong tree. He’s more interested in his patron, Jackson (Jonathan Bragg). We meet Anne (Alyssa Gardner) of whom Mary claims kin ship and the show while not a comedy has turned, at least, caring.
But the fog of London and the secrets of which the chorus foretold will return.
Anne’s mother, Polly (Patty Breckenridge) is a prostitute anxious for her daughter to continue in her footsteps. Times are tough and a mother has to do what a mother has to do. A similar reasoning propels Mary’s mother from a not dissimilar background. With a love triangle brewing between Mary, her tutor and his patron, it seems like everyone has a secret. Not to mention Jack, The Ripper.
Actually, nobody does because it is an unsolved mystery that has kept printing presses turning since the first violent murders were linked. Part of the lore comes from letters supposedly penned by Jack that were printed in the papers of the time. A particularly chilling tone is achieved as the cast sings/reads one of his letters. It’s an awkward crossover as the show is actually more concerned and more successful elsewhere. In fact, anyone interested in Jack The Ripper will be disappointed, especially with the abrupt “butler did it” ending.
The virtue of the production lies in the powerful performances. Fowler has laid challenging music before them—significantly aided by orchestrator Dan Kazemi, copyist Adam C. Wright and music director Kevin Gunter—and when given a chance to encounter it one on one, they shine. Daniel Rowan was probably strongest on opening night, but Bragg and Smith were a close second. Breckenridge has the unique pleasure of singing songs that were written for her—and it sounds like it.
There is no denying Fowler’s time and effort. To write a musical is a terrific accomplishment. But the ingredients are still occasionally distinguishable, like a stew that hasn’t stewed enough. When you recognize flavors of Phantom or savor some Sweeney, no matter how sweet the song, it breaks the spell. This is fine for a cabaret but a musical must be more than a sum of its parts.
Just like an “Open” sign doesn’t make your house into a shop, everything under your roof doesn’t tell the same story.