Dancing in the dark with ‘Sherlock Holmes’

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A program note for “Sherlock” – the high-styled Montreal-bred show by Greg Kramer that riffs on the stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – sets the scene this way: “Late 19th century London, that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained.”

Accurate, but only to a point. For the criminals – often in collusion with politicians, policemen, and even a type-setting headline writer at a Fleet Street newspaper – are actually hard at work, engaged in every form of skullduggery. And matching them beat for beat is their nemesis, Sherlock Holmes – that go-to expert hellbent on beating them at their sick game as he relentlessly probes the murky bottom of even the most complex murder case.

True, the supremely self-confident Holmes – deftly played by David Arquette in this touring production that runs through Sunday at the Oriental Theatre – is no expert when it comes to Shakespeare or any number of other things. And Dr. John Watson (the expertly understated James Maslow), Holmes’ self-effacing young friend and assistant, even displays a certain degree of pleasure (along with his usual awe) when pointing that out. But of course Holmes is unparalleled in his mastery of “observation and deduction,” and it’s a good bet that were he around today he’d easily trump all the high-tech electronic surveillance devices by his brain power alone.

‘SHERLOCK HOLMES’

Recommended

When: Through Nov. 29

Where: Oriental Theater,24 W. Randolph

Tickets: $21 – $87

Info: (800) 775-2000; http://www.BroadwayInChicago.com

Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission

A scene from “Sherlock Holmes,” with (at center) Renee Olstead, James Maslow and David Arquette. The show plays at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre through Nov. 29.

A scene from “Sherlock Holmes,” with (at center) Renee Olstead, James Maslow and David Arquette. The show plays at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre through Nov. 29.

While this “Sherlock Holmes” is no Benedict Cumberbatch-style update, director Andrew Shaver has set his Victorian world at high speed, infused it with bursts of expressionistic movement (courtesy of Annie St. Pierre), and envisioned it in a sleekly contemporary way that involves the work of set designer James Lavoie (who gets maximum effect from moveable screens and two steel stairways on wheels), lighting designer Itai Erdel, and the sophisticated black-and-white video design of George Allister and Patrick Andrew Boivan.

Yet for all the motion – and the distinctive body language of the actors – Shaver’s production generates a somewhat monotonous overall rhythm that has something to do with the tedious speech patterns that tend to accompany this sort of story theater.

Built from an amalgam of Conan Doyle tales (with the titles of the stories briefly projected as they emerge), “Sherlock” is, in essence, about the drug trade, with just enough of a winking subtext to make it of the moment.

It all begins with a rather bumbling Scotland Yard investigation and the inevitable need for Holmes’ expertise. The request for assistance comes from Lady Irene St.-John (a sassy turn by Renee Olstead, whose slight lisp can be a distraction), the brash and beautiful young American wife of Lord Neville St. John, the most vocal champion of a proposed law to ban opium. As it happens, after making a crucial speech in the House of Lords just prior to the pending vote, Lord Neville seems to have been abducted. Holmes (who, ironically enough, is a frequent opium “user” himself) has his work cut out for him.

James Maslow (from left plays Dr. John Watson; David Arquette is Sherlock Holmes and Renee Olstead is Lady Irene St. John in “Sherlock,” at Chicago’s Oreiental Theatre through Nov. 29. (Photo: Brian To)

James Maslow (from left plays Dr. John Watson; David Arquette is Sherlock Holmes and Renee Olstead is Lady Irene St. John in “Sherlock,” at Chicago’s Oreiental Theatre through Nov. 29. (Photo: Brian To)

To be sure, nothing is quite as it seems. And Holmes must vie with his great nemesis, the notoriously evil kingpin, Professor James Moriarity (Kyle Gatehouse), as well as his top henchman, Colonel Sebastian Moran (Graham Cuthbertson), whose skullduggery is legion. Along the way there are visits to a hospital morgue, a chemistry lab, train stations and yes, an opium den. And while Holmes’ brilliance is once again confirmed, Watson’s seeming meekness is surprisingly undone here by some genuine derring-do.

But as polished and artful as this production might be, there is something anticlimactic about it all. And it might just be as elementary as this: Sherlock has become overexposed.

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