“Do you really believe in 100 years, people will be talking about Sherlock?”
Says Michael Aaron Lindner as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the man behind the sleuth who is tired of dealing with his ever-popular Sherlock Holmes and would rather neatly chuck him off a cliff than write another Holmes story. The Sherlock author himself eventually kills off his main man within the first scene of Mercury Theater’s The Man Who Murdered Sherlock Holmes, but it is far from the end of the story for ol’ Holmesy. Needless to say, one hundred years later, Sherlock is alive and well – what with the fact that I’m watching a musical devoted to his namesake and am living in a world that has dedicated a healthy chunk of its pop culture enthusiasm to Sherlock Holmes, which is now being spread around the cultural spheres of film, television, and stage alike. But it’s this sort of tongue in cheek, poke-poke humor that is defining this brand new, original musical with a script that feels like a warm hug from your beloved Grandpa Eddie, who is partial to bourbon-spiked hot toddies and reciting A Christmas Carol in the living room every holiday season, rather than a riveting murder mystery.
Based loosely on a true series of events, this cozy rendition revolves around a bored, often-frustrated Doyle (Lindner) who murders his much beloved fictional character, Holmes, at around the same time a young Indian-English boy, George Edalji (Johann George) is being sentenced to seven years of hard labor for being deemed a murderer himself – of horses, in this case – around the countryside of Wyrley. Doyle’s wife, Louise (McKinley Carter), takes an immediate interest in the case and convinces a very reluctant, very non-sleuthlike Doyle to venture off to Wyrley in order to exonerate Edalji from a crime she believes he did not commit. While off nervously traipsing about the countryside passively trying to appease his wife’s, Doyle comes face-to-face with his less reluctant, very-much-a-sleuth fictional alter ego, Sherlock Holmes (Nick Sandys), where the two get buddy buddy and try to crack the case together.
If the plot reads like a vintage radio show whodunit, it’s because the show itself feels that way, using classic musical theater tropes, particularly of the English nature, to help ease it along. You have the song about the countryside! [“A Trip to the Country”] You have the song sung in a tavern inn! [“Right Here in Wryley”] You have the man and the alter ego! It’s as sweet as a plate of molasses cookies and as traditional as one too – perfect family-centric fare that’s both polite and clean and will help make swallowing ice cream at the soda fountain later a treat rather than a test of your existential wits!
However, hard cynics aside, that’s sort of the point of this production. A passion project 20 years in the making, The Man Who Murdered Sherlock Holmes was penned by John Reeger who found inspiration in the project after coming across another book, not by Doyle, mind you, but about Doyle and his other life of crime solving entitled The Real World of Sherlock Holmes. Together with composer and lyricist, Julie Shannon, the two created a draft of the piece until Shannon’s eventual death in 2012 from illness put a halt on the project. Alas, the musical was shelved, but a change of heart came in 2014, when a re-reading of the show at Mercury Theater sparked a newfound interest, and Michael Mahler was brought on board to contribute music and lyrics and to polish up Shannon’s. Speaking of which, outside of the melodies, Shannon herself is alive and well in the final Sherlock product, where the themes of life and death are very lovingly reflected upon throughout the musical, a much appreciated tip of the hat to the woman who helped helm the show that is now being performed on the Mercury stage.
But like your hot toddy-sippin’ Grandpa Eddie, the heart of the production is found not so much in the book or even the music, but in the character and charm of the actors. In less capable hands, the show may seem only too one-dimensional, too syrupy. However, Lindner brings a robustness, a very twinkle-in-the-eye naturalness to Arthur Conan Doyle that proved itself to be the highlight of the production. Couple that with Sandys’s Rex Harrison-esque Sherlock Holmes, as well as his smooth yet assertively comedic confidence, and you have yourself a combo pack and a half of a good time. Other standouts included Carter as Mrs. Doyle, who was soft, sensitive and endearing as all get out, and Ronald Keaton as Norman Pierce, a citizen of Wyrley and a comedic tour de force that never felt heavy handed in his gentle sense of humor.
The book itself, as family-centric, does have a similar warmth but derives its charm while sitting above a safety net. Besides that of life and death, another one of the plot’s themes is race – particularly that of George Edalji, who is convicted mostly because of the color of his skin rather than due to thorough hard evidence. Perhaps this is just bad timing for a 20-year-old project, but in an era where police brutality against black Americans is being intensely spotlighted on a national scale, the script’s own take on the topic feels brief, light and passive in comparison. This feels okay within the confines of the show’s seemingly intended audience (families) but less so as a political statement with any gratifying weight.
All in all though, one can’t help leaving the theater feeling a bit charmed by the heart of the piece, which definitely has a presence on the stage and within the sweet melodies brought forth by Shannon and Mahler. However, a hundred years from now, this show may still be warmly regarded as a nostalgia piece but less so in the same stick-to-the-bones nature of Sherlock Holmes himself.
The Man Who Murdered Sherlock Holmes runs at the Mercury Theater Chicago, 3745 N. Southport Ave., until March 20. Show times are Wednesdays and Fridays at 8pm, Thursdays and Saturdays at 3 and 8pm, and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets range from $25-$65 and can be bought online or via the box office at 773-325-1700.