Old Globe's 'Baskerville' Earns its Howls
by James Hebert for the San Diego Union Tribune
Blake Segal, Liz Wisan, Euan Morton, Usman Ally and Andrew Kober (left to right) in the Old Globe Theatre's "Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery." — Jim Cox
Five actors playing some three dozen characters, in a mystery that’s playing a satire that’s playing a farce?
No sweat, Sherlock.
Actually, there’s a bit of sweat involved for the famous sleuth (played by Euan Morton) and his trusty chum Dr. Watson (Usman Ally) in the Old Globe’s inventive and often dizzyingly kinetic “Baskerville: a Sherlock Holmes Mystery.”
And a whole lot of performatory perspiration for the three who portray everyone else — Andrew Kober, Blake Segal and Liz Wisan — in playwright Ken Ludwig’s gleefully theatrical riff on the Arthur Conan Doyle chiller “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”
That also goes for the commando squad of backstage dressers and assistants who make it possible for director Josh Rhodes’ deliciously witty production to zip along. (They take a well-deserved bow with the cast at curtain call, which is a nice touch).
Forget the phantom hound that confounds Holmes and Co. The real mysteries here are more like: How did that lady just turn into a lord? Is that guy the cop or the cowboy (or both?) And where did those blessed umbrellas just come from?
The cast also delights not just in breaking the fourth wall but in tromping around beyond it — and woe be the playgoer who stands in their way. (I believe this is the first time I’ve personally been used as a prop.)
It’s all in good fun, and the show takes sly jabs at its own seat-of-the-breakaway-pants ethos.
When an annoyed Holmes asks a young lad (played by Wisan) who has just burst onstage, “What took you so long?,” the panting performer (who moments before had played an elaborately costumed middle-aged lady) replies: “You have no idea.”
Crowd-pleaser though it is, “Baskerville” owes an acknowledged debt to such works as “The 39 Steps,” the madcap adaptation of Hitchcock (with a similarly slimmed-down cast) that ran for two years on Broadway.
The prolific Ludwig has his own distinguished Broadway resume, including the hits “Lend Me a Tenor” and “Crazy for You,” the Tony Award-winner as best musical in 1992.
Some of his comedy in "Baskerville" dips into the groan-inducing (as when a character misunderstands the German words “bitte” and “danke” to be references to the weather), and the slapstick could be dialed down here and there.
But the performances are inspired. Morton (who starred on Broadway as Boy George in “Taboo”) makes for an elegant and fastidious Holmes, who nevertheless can’t repress his boyish excitement over the case of the horrid hound with “blazing eyes and dripping jaws” who has figured into a series of murders spanning centuries.
Ally is admirably deadpan as the steadfast Watson, who narrates some of the story. And Kober, Segal and Wisan are wonders of ever-shifting identity: Texan good ol’ boy, Gothic matron with a scary unibrow, butterfly-chasing fop, chirpy femme fatale.
Director Rhodes’ background as a choreographer (for the Globe's Steve Martin-penned musical "Bright Star," among others) shows in the piece’s fluid momentum; his and set designer Wilson Chin’s use of the arena-style White Theatre space is also about the most complete I’ve seen.
Bart Fasbender’s spooky/amusing sound adds rich atmosphere, as does Austin R. Smith’s lighting; and Shirley Pierson’s costumes are a triumph of ingenuity.
They’re made to be taken off, in what proves a pretty irresistible literary put-on.