BACKSTAGE NEW YORK CITY THEATRE REVIEWS
The Blue Carbuncle with Sherlock Holmes & The Gift of the Magi December 07, 2007 By Nancy Ellen Shore Amidst all the big-budget holiday theatrical fare, I sincerely hope theatregoers will find time to enjoy this delightful offering at a tiny Midtown theatre. It overflows with the true spirit of the season.
The show opens with a talented 12-member ensemble in a prelude of eight contemporary holiday songs, arranged and directed by Jeffrey Buchsbaum, ranging from the comic "Merry Christislamakwanzakah!" to the poignant "You Would Have Loved This." Next comes a genial, liquor-swilling O. Henry narrating his quintessential New York Christmas tale "The Gift of the Magi," set in 1905, about a poor working-class couple, very much in love, and the ironic sacrifices they make to buy each other presents. After intermission, it's Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famed 1889 story "The Blue Carbuncle," in which everybody's favorite sleuth, Sherlock Homes, and his sidekick, Dr. Watson, encounter several colorful cockney characters in their search for a jewel thief on Christmas Eve. Along the way, Watson helps the reserved, logic-obsessed Holmes discover the true meaning of the holiday.
Both tales have been cleverly adapted by Andrew Joffe and imaginatively staged by Kathleen Brant to include the hustle and bustle of a metropolitan Christmas, complete with jubilant carolers and a street-corner violinist (Ken Linsk). Touches like an invisible O. Henry (played with buoyant good humor by Richard Kent Green) helping his character Della on with her coat are wonderful. Jodie Bentley and Tyler Hollinger manage to avoid easy sentimentality and find the camaraderie and love, with an undercurrent of erotic passion, that bind O. Henry's famous romantic pair.
Paul Singleton gives us brief glimpses of the emotional loneliness behind the pipe-chomping Holmes' piercing intellect and deftly illuminates the famous sleuth's unswerving moral passion, while Todd Butera creates an earthy, good-natured Watson who has great admiration and compassion for his longtime friend. Kate Andres, whose comic Jewish grandmother is a hoot in the prelude, gets laughs here too with her perennially exasperated housekeeper. Her hair-salon proprietor in The Gift of the Magi is also very good. And Michael Gnat, Bruce Barton, Kelly Campbell (who sings beautifully in the prelude), Tom DelPizzo, and especially Jon Lonoff — first as a shabby, down-on-his-luck intellectual and then as a boozy, loudmouthed pub owner — do excellent supporting work bringing late-19th-century London vividly alive. Anna Gerdes' period costumes are exceptionally good for a low-budget production, as is Stefani Nicole Oxman's simple wooden-platform set backed by a glowing streetlamp and turn-of-the-century cityscapes.
The WorkShop Theater gives a cheerful alternative to bombast or treacle in these two charming adaptations of holiday classics. Despite a slightly rocky start with an ersatz cabaret, this production moves on in short order to deliver genuinely amusing and fine versions of holiday classics to enjoy and celebrate the season.
The initial musical moment consists of eight contemporary holiday songs that are well performed and given much more than they deserve (Tom DelPizzo is especially enjoyable with his gleeful paean to snow) as the tunes themselves are not destined to become classic regardless of the appeal of their singers. Happily these are quickly followed by a lovely version of O. Henry's "Gift of the Magi" that is well served by the talents of Andrew Joffe's adaptation. Bringing O. Henry onstage (with a delightful characterization by Richard Kent Green) is a welcome enrichment of the storytelling and his commentary, which follows Delia (Jodie Bentley imbues this part with real charm) through her holiday frenzy to find the perfect gift, actually does underscore giving as the most important part of a gift. Director Kathleen Brant has her cast move about a fairly compact space, skillfully filling in the picture of old New York and ensuring that they give the characters full measure of humanity as well as humor. Solid, sincere playing of the other parts by Tyler Hollinger as husband Jim, Kate Andres as Madame Sofronie, and Jon Lonoff as the salesman, complete the story. It is deceptively simple to watch, hiding extremely well done technique—much like the original story.
The adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle" is equally a delight. This particular tale follows the detection of how a rare blue carbuncle ends up in the crop of a Christmas goose. Paul Singleton and Todd Butera are admirable as Holmes and Watson, both taking on these iconic roles wholeheartedly yet with a little affectionate send-up on the side. Singleton portrays Sherlock Holmes with an icy Jeremy Brett-like reserve that he slyly undercuts with various noble far-off looks of an ilk that would make Burt Lancaster jealous. His ego and intellectual feats do not exempt him from human foibles such as loneliness, and here they occur at just the right level to be believable yet not overdone. Far from being a dismissible buffoon, Butera's Dr. Watson is a comfortable man of warmth with the true gift of patience for a friend's idiosyncrasies. While by no means possessing the brilliance of his detective friend, this Watson is an estimable man in his own right and a true partner for Holmes. To watch them as they go about London questioning all, from goose wholesalers to industrious housewives to hapless villains (well played respectively by Bruce Barton, Kelly Campbell, and Michael Gnat), is an enjoyable romp.
Throughout both pieces are beautiful bits of carol singing and violin (Ken Linsk, who also does double duty as the hapless ex-con mistakenly accused in "Blue Carbuncle"), and the set itself is wisely designed by Stefani Oxman to enhance the sense of space and mood. Lauren Duffie's lighting design adds in a charming touch of footlights. All in all, these are captivating Christmas tales, comfortable and worthwhile to curl up with and well done by the Workshop Theater Company.
Even the most generous person can't help but look for a bargain when shopping for Christmas presents. It seems to be part and parcel with this magic season. While 2 for 1 may sound like a good deal, the WorkShop Theater Company raises the stakes even more, providing the audience with not one, not two, but three plays for the price of one. Technically, one of these is more of a cabaret, and is referred to as a "Prelude" in the program, but it is one of three distinct pieces that make up a delightful evening of holiday cheer.
The Prelude provides a comfortable way to ease the audience into the Christmas spirit. Set at a party, a group of friends celebrates the season and sings eight fun and occasionally touching songs. The strongest of the eight feature not only wonderful music and lyrics, but showcase some remarkable singing and acting talent. This is no doubt why director Kathleen Brant choses to work live music into the entire production. The highlights of the Prelude are Gordy Pratt's 'I'm a Present,' sung by the delightful Richard Kent Green, Jodie Bentley's sexy vamping to 'Santa, Take Me for a Ride in Your Sleigh' by Brent Hardesty, and Kelly Campbell's lovely and touching version of Cori Connors' 'You Would Have Loved This.' While two of the other songs are not as strong, Lauren Mayer's 'The Fruitcake that Ate New Jersey' and 'It's Snowing' by John O. A. Pagano, they feature two performers, Bruce Barton and Tom DelPizzo, respectively, who more than make up for it. Barton is a powerhouse; DelPizzo is a whirling dervish of energy. The Prelude also features some lovely violin playing by Ken Linsk.
DelPizzo makes an immediate return as Jim, the owner of a very fine pocketwatch in Andrew Joffe's adaptation of The Gift of the Magi. Jodie Bentley plays his wife with the beautiful hair, Della. Richard Kent Green is the Porter, the narrator of the tale. The play is a fairly good retelling of O. Henry's story, though, as is the case with most plays where nearly everyone in the audience knows how it will end, it lacks a certain dramatic tension. Luckily, Bentley's portrayal of Della is charming and full of wide-eyed wonder; when caught up in her enthusiasm, it's easy to forget, for a moment, where the play is going. Brant's staging of the play, particularly the final tableau in which Jim and Della embrace as the lights fade, is strong and effective.
The final play of the evening, Joffe's adaptation of the Arthur Conan Doyle tale, The Blue Carbuncle with Sherlock Holmes, is not what one would normally think of as a Christmas standard. Odd as it may seem, however, it works. This is primarily due to Todd Butera as the jovial Watson and Paul Singleton as Sherlock Holmes. A little Basil Rathbone and a little Jeremy Brett, Singleton's Holmes is a bit more human than he is often portrayed. The mystery is cute, though contrived. Holmes and Watson try to help a plumber (Ken Linsk) who has been accused of stealing a rare blue garnet or carbuncle. When the garnet turns up in the gullet of a Christmas goose, Holmes and Watson must use deduction and observation to find out how it got there and what it could mean. While perhaps not Arthur Conan Doyle's most complicated mystery, The Blue Carbuncle is enjoyable nonetheless.
Stefani Nicole Oxman's simple set, featuring two platforms, chairs and stools, and large lighted flats with city scenes on them, works equally well for all three portions of the evening's entertainment. Anna Gerdes, the costume designer, is to be commended for costuming a large cast in three different periods and places – modern, Victorian London, and turn of the century New York. The Gift of the Magi & The Blue Carbuncle with Sherlock Holmes may not be the most innovative production one can see this Christmas season, but it delivers good solid entertainment, and after a hard day's shopping, that can be a wonderful treat.
(The Gift of the Magi & The Blue Carbuncle with Sherlock Holmes also features Kate Andres, Michael Gnat, and John Lonoff.)
Box Score: (on a scale of 0 to 2)
Writing: 1 Directing: 2 Acting: 2 Sets: 1 Costumes: 2 Lighting/Sound: 1