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A grand musical riff on Conan Doyle’s alter ego in ‘The Man Who Murdered Sherlock Holmes’

Rarely has a new musical (“Broadway-bound” or otherwise) arrived on a local stage with the sort of superb, highly polished gloss that marks every aspect of “The Man Who Murdered Sherlock Holmes,” now in a verbally bristling, stunningly sung, ideally realized world premiere at Mercury Theater Chicago.

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‘THE MAN WHO MURDERED SHERLOCK HOLMES’

Highly recommended

When: Through March 20

Where: Mercury Theater Chicago,

3745 N. Southport

Tickets: $25-$65

Info: (773) 325-1700;

www.Mercury

TheaterChicago.com

Run time: 2 hours

and 40 minutes with one intermission

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The show is hardly an overnight success. It has been “in the works” for 20 years, ever since John Reeger came across a book that triggered his imagination and eventually teamed with composer-lyricist Julie Shannon, with whom he had collaborated on”The Christmas Schooner.” Shannon died in 2012, but much of her work had already been tested and recorded, and in 2014 the Mercury’s executive director, L. Walter Stearns, tapped the wildly gifted Michael Mahler (who already has several fine musicals to his credit) to contribute to the final version and serve as music director.

The result is a show with a sparklingly smart, sophisticated book, one in which Reeger’s years as an actor with a mastery of both the classics and musicals shines through in every witty line. His story plays on the idea of a hugely successful author who grows to feel eclipsed by the almost Frankenstein-like character he has invented. In this case, the author is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a man of fiery temperament, whose most famous character, that egotistical genius of a detective, has become more real to readers than Doyle himself. Holmes has become so oppressive to Doyle that the writer decides to kill him off. Holmes, however, will not accept death.

Paired with this story is the lush Shannon/Mahler score of 20 songs, infused with plenty of late Victorian-meets-Broadway overtones (including echoes of both “Sweeney Todd” and “My Fair Lady”) but with a freshly modern energy and dynamism. The score demands quasi-operatic voices, and it gets them at every turn.

Matthew Keffer (from left), Nick Sandys and Michael Aaron Lindner in "The Man Who murdered Sherlock Holmes," a world premiere musical at the Mercury Theater Chicago. (Photo:....)

Matthew Keffer (from left), Nick Sandys and Michael Aaron Lindner in “The Man Who Murdered Sherlock Holmes,” a world premiere musical at the Mercury Theater Chicago. (Photo: Brett A. Beiner)

I confess I entered the Mercury Theater feeling a certain sympathy with Doyle. Although Sherlock Holmes has enthralled readers (including the young Winston Churchill) since the late 1880s, his many incarnations in film, television and the theater can border on overexposure. Yet this show, directed with ferocity and flourish by Warner Crocker, suggests why he and his “maker” remain irresistible. The two are a near-foolproof “brand” that can, in the hands of subtle artists, even tap into contemporary issues of prejudice and injustice.

The story (rooted in fact) goes like this: In his latest book, Doyle (Michael Aaron Lindner, an actor of both grace and heft, with a golden, powerhouse voice used to sublime dramatic effect) kills off Holmes. His fans are so incensed that his wife, Louise (the elegant, silver-voiced McKinley Carter), suggests he take a trip to the country to evade the dangerous turmoil.

As it turns out, Wyrley, a mining town in England’s West Midlands, is no tranquil oasis. In fact, it has recently become the scene of brutal horse slashings (echoes of “Equus”). And the young man sentenced to prison and years of hard labor for the crime is George Edalji (the intense Johann George), the intellectual son of the Rev. Shapurji Edjali (Anish Jethmalani), an Indian by birth, whose brown skin has always made him, as well as his Scottish wife, Charlotte (Mary Ernster), outsiders. An incident during George’s early schooldays only exacerbated the situation.

Doyle delves into this real-life case only after Holmes (a wonderfully acerbic and stylish performance by Nick Sandys) goads him to start thinking like the brilliant detective he created. For something is very wrong with this case. And Holmes’ relentless, often comical ghostlike presence drives Doyle to pursue the truth in the manner of his fabled character. (The situation brings to mind the one in the musical “City of Angels” where a character and his creator face off in the song “You’re Nothing Without Me.”)

Along the way there are immensely engaging turns by the Doyles’ housekeeper, Ivy (Colette Todd); the fiery charwoman at the inn in Wyrley, Molly Jamison (Christina Hall); the local police sergeant (David Girolmo); the angry town blacksmith (volcanic Matthew Keefer); his pal, a miner (Russell Mernagh), and the chatty, unhappily married Norman (Ronald Keaton).

When the show’s full ensemble sings in unison, they make a glorious sound, backed by a flawless orchestra led by Linda Madonia, and including Elena Spiegel, Kelsee Vandervall, Sarah Younker and Miles Tesar. And every element of design is equally impeccable, from Scott Davis’ set to Yael Lubetsky’s lighting, Robert S. Kuhn’s costumes and the crystalline sound of Mike Ross and Joe Court.

This “Sherlock” would make a terrific television special (much like the “Christmas Carol” concert Lindner starred in on PBS) but is bound to have a rich life on the stage, too. Elementary, I’d say.

Michael Aaron Lindner plays Arthur Conan Doyle and McKinley Carter plays his wife, Louise, in "The Man Who Murdered Sherlock Holmes." (Photo: Brett A. Beiner)

Michael Aaron Lindner plays Arthur Conan Doyle and McKinley Carter plays his wife, Louise, in “The Man Who Murdered Sherlock Holmes.” (Photo: Brett A. Beiner)