Horror, murder and mayhem have a rich history in musical theater, from successes like Sweeney Todd, Jekyll & Hyde and Chicago to disasters like Assassins and Carrie. Unfortunately, Deadly, a world premiere musical at Sacred Fools in Hollywood, has more in common with the latter category. It’s a relentless series of increasingly brutal murders, with a corresponding growing group of slain women providing mostly painful musical commentary.
H.H. Holmes, the country’s first serial killer, is the subject of this period piece, produced by Sacred Fools and written by Vanessa Claire Stewart with music by Ryan Thomas Johnson. In 1893, Holmes operated a “murder castle” in Chicago – a hotel tricked out with ways to asphyxiate and otherwise kill and dispose of the bodies of those shameless ladies who had the gall to travel independently to the World’s Fair and succumb to his charms.
Holmes, who’s confirmed to have killed at least nine people, is a character in the bestselling nonfiction novel The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. He’s played in Deadly by Keith Allan as a cross between Snidely Whiplash and Tommy Tune. Yes, he’s handsome and charming, but his evil tendencies are played so broadly that only the most naïve Gay Nineties damsels wouldn’t pick up on his not-so-ulterior motives.
Seven female victims are portrayed. They sing, “He’s the legend; nobody knows us by name.” This particular Holmes is arguably not a legend but an unfortunate opening volley in an ensuing 12 decades of infamous serial killers and unknown victims.
The women are problematic. In an author’s note, Stewart says, “I wanted my next project to be a play that remembered these brave women as people who deserved better than to be dismissed as a sexualized footnote of one horrible sociopath’s legacy.” Yet the women are mostly gullible caricatures who cheat on their husbands, pursue a man who does not return their ardor and otherwise show little moral code or savvy. One puts her daughter at risk while she runs off with Holmes. If these are heroines, it’s only because they’re graded on the curve.
That said, the actresses playing the victims are talented. Brittney S. Wheeler, playing Lizzie Sommers, and Samantha Barrios, playing Minnie Williams, are standouts.
Holmes is abetted by his alcoholic, submissive employee, Benjamin Pitezel (David LM McIntyre for the production I saw; in half the performances the role will be played by the playwright’s husband, French Stewart). Pitezel veers between eager complicity and desperate resistance, mostly playing the middle ground of acquiescing to his boss’ demands. McIntyre gives his Pitezel a pathos and sense of woe that adds an interesting layer of victimhood to the victim-strewn stage.
The device of a police interrogation means sequences of Holmes laughing off questions by Detective Frank Geyer (Eric Curtis Johnson) intercutting the action. This allows Holmes even more opportunity to display his callous vanity but adds little to the plot. Similarly, the songs reinforce the plot but infrequently move it forward. The musical range is so wide that it conquers most who try to sing it and features more riffs than melody.
The production, six years in the making, features an effectively creepy set by Stephen Gifford with a hotel structure that evokes both a gallows and guillotine. The victims are outfitted in brilliant costumes by Linda Muggeridge. The cast moves to impressive choreography spanning musical numbers and fights to the death through the laudable efforts of choreographers Brin Hamblin and Jo Ann Mendelson.
Sacred Fools went all in on Deadly. Mounting an original two-and-a-half-hour musical with a cast of 10, a live orchestra and a lot of moving parts requires massive levels of commitment from dozens of company members. It’s unfortunate that the resulting show feels mean-spirited and plodding.
Deadly runs through Nov. 2 at the Main Stage of the Broadwater Theater Complex, 1076 Lillian Way. Show times are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, with one Monday performance, on Oct. 21 at 8:00 pm. Tickets are $15, with a pay-what-you-will performance Friday, Sept. 20 at 8:00 pm. For more information and tickets, click here.
About Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen has lived in the Brookside neighborhood since 1993. She works as a freelance writer, editor and consultant. She's also a playwright affiliated with Neo Ensemble Theatre in Hollywood.
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