‘Deadly’—Vanessa Claire Stewart’s Serial Killer Musical Doesn’t Slay You

By Ernest Kearney  —  Roberta Kathleen Parks, Audrey Nelson, Mary Jo Peyton, Shirley Marie Sherrill,  Melissa Anne Smith, Carrie Ann Rois, Kathie Sue Pierce, Steven Tuomi, Shannon Zielinski, Sue Luna, Dorothy Keeler,  Emeline Cigrand, Lela Kneiding, John Butkovich, Lisa Levy, Margaret Bowman, Minnie Williams.

Chances are you don’t know any of those names.  They were all victims of serial killers whose names you most likely do know: Richard Ramirez, John Wayne Gacy, Gary Ridgway, Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer and Herman Webster Mudgett.

Well, perhaps that last name you’re unfamiliar with, but Herman Mudgett (1861-1896) was one of America’s earliest serial killers. *1*

Known as H.H. Holmes most of his adult life the number of his victims is a matter of conjecture, what is known however is that he built an elaborate abattoir with asphyxiation chambers, secret passageways, rooms connected to gas pipelines, a crematorium, and a basement with surgical tables and acid vats in a suburb of Chicago that he then disguised as a hotel.

Awareness of Holmes and his crimes found its way into the mainstream American consciousness in 2003 with the publication of author Erik Larson’s bestselling The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America.

Playwright Vanessa Claire Stewart has taken the story of Holmes and treated it to a musical rendering ala Sweeney Todd.

Deadly, staged by Sacred Fools Theatre Company, has songs, mayhem and a vicious murderer.  What it doesn’t have is a Sondheim, or a workable structure.

With lyrics by Stewart (additional lyrics by Trey Perkins and Guy Picot) and Ryan Johnson supplying the music, Deadly offers twenty-two tunes; the best of which have found themselves in the second act.

As far as the songs go, less would have been better.  As it stands in this production directed by Jaime Robledo, there are too many numbers and too few singers capable of handling them.

To her credit as a human being, Stewart feels the injustice of serial killers achieving an everlasting, if perverse, fame, while the names of their victims are consigned to oblivion.

To remedy that, Stewart has given center stage to Holmes’ victims, whose spirits congregate in his “Murder Castle” after meeting their fates, then who attempt in their ghostly states to warn off others who innocently fall under his influence.

Stewart establishes three realities within her play: that of the “castle,” the scene of Holmes’ murderous spree, the otherworldly realm of his victims, and Moyamensing Prison in Philadelphia where Holmes (Keith Allan) is interrogated by Frank Geyer (Eric Curtis Johnson) the police detective who pursued and apprehended him.

Here you have the primary handicap to Deadly, the lack of a solid dramatic configuration that allows for characters to generate the needed conflict to either grip the audience or compel the narrative.

None of the three realities Stewart has crafted are advantageous to developing drama.

 In the “castle” you have Holmes.  His victims arrive, sing a tune, and are disposed of rapidly with little in the way of conflict.  His victim are dispatched suddenly with the exception Julie Conner (Erica Hanrahan-Ball) and she just flees from him.  Unsuccessfully.

The otherworldly realm where the specters of his victims gather is the sphere of most of the musical numbers, the best being Minnie and Anna, a serenade between two slaughtered siblings (Samantha Barrios and Rebecca Larsen).  But with the exception of Holmes’ dim-witted accomplice (David LM Mcintyre) whose character is sadly squandered, the ethereal phantoms are unable to engage with those in the world of the living, reducing them to mere observers. 

Finally, there is the prison where Holmes is held awaiting execution.

This is at the “conclusion” of his murderous rampage.  Conclusions are the products of conflict not the engine for them.

Stewart provides a rather straightforward history of Holmes’ murderous career, but one basically devoid of dramatic tension.

Stewart has focused the majority of her play on characters and scenes which are “after the fact” and thus anemic of any conflict.  An effort is made to introduce Geyer’s pursuit of Holmes but this comes too late to do any good and is little more than the detective running on stage then off.

A successful play, in the final analysis, is merely the thoughtful blending of interesting questions for those in the audience to be asking themselves, with strong conflicts for those on the stage to engage in.

Neither of which you’ll find at the Sacred Fools

Stewart acknowledges in the program notes that she first learned of Holmes while watching the History Channel.  Unfortunately, all she’s managed to do with Deadly is transposed a history lesson to the stage.  With music.

The final verdict on Stewart’s effort is found in the extent that her objective was realized.

At the end of Deadly the audiences will depart the theatre knowing the names of Sharon Tate and Gianni Versace, but it’s doubtful they’ll leave remembering the name of any of H. H. Holmes’ victims. 

Auntor’s Note: *1 *  Holmes is often identified as “America’s first serial killer,” which is incorrect.  That dubious distinction belongs to the Harpe brothers, Micajah “Big” Harpe (1768-1799) and Wiley “Little” Harpe (1770-1804) who used the Revolutionary War to cloak their crimes as loyalty to the King.  They were suspected of killing between 39 and a 100 people.

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An award-winning L.A. playwright and rabble-rouser of note who has hoisted glasses with Orson Welles, been arrested on three continents and once beat up Charlie Manson. His first play, "Among the Vipers" was a semi-finalist in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition and was featured in the Carnegie-Mellon Showcase of New Plays. It was produced at the NPT Theater in Ashland, Oregon and Los Angeles’ celebrated Odyssey Ensemble Theatre. His following play, “The Little Boy Who Loved Monsters” was produced at The Hollywood Actors Theater, where he earned praise from the Los Angeles Times for his “…inordinately creative writing.” The play went on to numerous other productions including Berlin’s The Black Theatre under the direction of Rainer Fassbinder who wrote in his program notes of Kearney, “He is a skilled playwright, but more importantly he is a dangerous one.” Ernest Kearney has worked as literary manager or as dramaturge for among others The Hudson Theater Guild, Nova Diem and the Odyssey Ensemble Theatre, where he still serves on the play selection committee. He has been the recipient of two Dramalogue Awards and a finalist or semi-finalist, three times, in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition. His work has been performed by Michael Dunn, Sandra Tsing Loh, Jack Colvin and Billy Bob Thornton, and to date, either as playwright or director, he has upwards of a hundred and thirty productions under his belt, including a few at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater as puppeteer. Kearney remains focused on his writing, as well as living happily ever after with his lovely wife Marlene. His stage reviews and social essays can be found at TheTVolution.com and workingauthor.com. Follow him on Facebook.

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