The River Rep Theatre Troupe's second show of their summer season at the Ivoryton Playhouse is William Gillette's and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's mystery melodrama, "Sherlock Holmes". The show is set in murky Victorian London and tells the tale of incriminating letters that threaten a royal marriage and revenge, all revealed by Holmes' exceptional powers of deduction. This adventure is topped off by Holmes' inevitable encounter with arch-enemy Professor Moriarty in an attempt to rescue the heroine from the deadly trap in an abandoned gas works. Director Evan Thompson picks 15 topnotch performers, led by an excellent Sherlock Holmes played by Stephen Kunken and also containing 5 stunning sets and gorgeous costumes to please their appreciative audiences.
The Ivoryton Playhouse was built by the Comstack-Cheney Company as an entertainment space for its ivory factory workers in 1908. This hall was transformed into the first summer stock venue in Connecticut by Milton Stiefel in 1930 and many famous stars worked here throughout the years. One of the most famous was Katherine Hepburn who starred in 7 summer shows at the theatre in 1931 including "Just Married", "It's a Wise Child", "Alias The Deacon", "Jonesy", "The Cat and the Canary", "Let Us Be Gay" and "The Man Who Came Back". The entire run of Sherlock Holmes is dedicated to Miss Hepburn who passed away in Old Saybrook, CT on June 29th. I am sure she would have been proud of this superb production dedicated to her memory.
Evan Thompson not only directs his cast beautifully, he blocks them very well, too, by utilizing all areas of his five different sets. The astounding sets by Bob Phillips who is the art director for SESAME STREET, creates a revolving stage which shows the two story drawing room set complete with an onstage piano, the underground office of Professor Moriarty, the two story Sherlock Holmes' study set in Baker street, the abandoned gas works set and Dr. Watson's two story wooden panaled consulting room set in Kensington. The gorgeous Victorian costumes are designed by Jennie Cleaver and the lighting is by Marcus Abbott. ( The shadowy lighting for the gas works' scene conveys the mysterious, threatening moments which ensue during it.) Stage manager, Debra Anne Freeman and her assistant, Arthur Pignataro keep the cast on their toes and keep the busy interns constantly working on changing and turning the revolving sets seamlessly.
Stephen Kunken who recently appeared on Broadway in the Tony award winning production of "Proof", is dynamic as Holmes, keeping the suspense and mystery flowing from start to finish. His line delivery and presence command the stage in all his scenes. Stephen intrigues the audience whether the character is gathering his clues from the people and their surroundings or whether he is shooting himself up with cocaine or whether he is outwitting the criminals. Bravo on a first rate performance. (In 1899 William Gillette played the role in his play and was a smash hit, playing it for more than 30 years. Born in Hartford, CT, Gillitte built his famous home known as The Castle in 1919 on a bluff on the Connecticut River. The Castle just reopened and this River Rep production is a celebration of this event as well as a tribute to Gillette as a preeminent playwright.) Holmes' arch-enemy, Moriarty is played by Owen Thompson who is a founding member and Producing Director of River Rep. He wears a long gray wig and delivers his venomous lines wonderfully. Owen oozes evilness in this smarmy role and does so with the glee of a sociopathic villain. The beautiful redhead, Tracy Liz Miller gives this heroine the strength needed to stand up to the hoodlums around her as well as to Mr. Holmes, himself, which gives Alice Faulkner a more well rounded characterization. She fights the crooks and spars verbally with Holmes, doing it all splendidly. Holmes' assistant, Dr. Watson is played by Jeff Talbott who has appeared on LAW & ORDER and ONE LIFE TO LIVE. Jeff makes the character a lovable confidante of Holmes, giving him the warmth and charm the role needs. His acting prowess can be seen when he shows astonishment at the cleverness of Sherlock's deductions but is not afraid to scold him for taking dangerous drugs. (Nigel Bruce, the original Dr. Watson from the Basil Rathbone movies, appeared at this Playhouse in the 1930's.)
The evil kidnappers of the heroine, the Larabees are played by John Cayer and Jean Tafler. They do a fantastic job in these roles especially in the expostion scene by keeping the audience's attention riveted to the show. John is a Connecticut native who has worked in Boston, NY, Chicago and CA while Jean has appeared in over 30 Shakespearean productions around the country. Their pesky servants are played by Todd Thurston, who made his Broadway debut in RAGTIME, is John Forman who is the Larrabee's butler but is more than he seems to be while Rainbow Dickerson, a recent graduate of Circle in the Square's musical program, plays the frightened but nosy French maid, Therese. The rest of this talented cast includes Ron Bagden, Damien Langan,Melanie French, (who is only a teenager plays Billy, Holmes' errand boy) Michael Sayers, Russell Webb, Timothy Abbott and John T. Swanson. So for a summer treat in an historic airconditioned playhouse, be sure to catch "Sherlock Holmes", you won't be disappointed. Tell them Tony sent you