History tends to remember murderers; the murdered are too often forgotten.
“Deadly,” a new musical, sets out to correct this carelessness — or, at least, one particularly stark example of it.
In the 1890s, America was enthralled by news about a Chicago “murder castle,” a vast retail and residential complex that had been booby-trapped by its seemingly refined, charming proprietor. A short streetcar ride away, throngs strolled the glittering World’s Columbian Exposition, unaware that serial horrors were underway. Women, in particular, disappeared.
These chilling events, now best remembered from Erik Larson’s bestselling book “The Devil in the White City,” are richly dramatic, and their theatricality grows stronger still with Vanessa Claire Stewart’s determination to reclaim the names — and lives — of those who vanished. Her vision has been translated into a striking production in Hollywood.
Unfortunately, the show quickly devolves into a succession of sickening snuff-outs. We never do learn much about the dead as they are reduced, once again, to mere fixations for the killer who used the alias H.H. Holmes.
Stewart, who co-wrote the 2008-09 phenomenon “Louis & Keely: Live at the Sahara,” works here with her collaborators on the 2012 Buster Keaton bio-play “Stoneface”: composer Ryan Thomas Johnson and director Jaime Robledo. Sacred Fools, the launchpad for those shows, introduces this one too.
“Deadly” works best when it focuses on the adventure and fulfillment that young women of the era were able to pursue because they’d achieved unprecedented freedom to travel — or even relocate — unchaperoned.
Capable, confident Evelyn Stewart (Kristyn Evelyn) wants to be an engineer. In song, she imagines designing something like the Ferris wheel, introduced at the fair. But about Mrs. Julia Conner (Erica Hanrahan-Ball), we learn little more than that she is unsatisfied in her marriage, or that Miss Minnie Williams (Samantha Barrios) longs to be thought attractive.
The show offers the women a chance at some antiviolence activism, at least. They linger as ghosts, their numbers increasing, their voices intensifying.
Appropriately, the score is devoted mostly to women’s voices, with songs that evoke parlor songs, church hymns, gospel numbers and horror-movie tropes.
Linda Muggeridge costumes the ghosts in worm-eaten, gray-white corsets, bloomers and petticoats, and Stephen Gifford provides an effectively gloomy Victorian set, which Andrew Schmedake lights in bloody reds, poisonous greens and eerie blues. A band of four accompanies a committed cast of 10, including Keith Allan as coolly detached Holmes.
Disappointment is in direct proportion to the project’s potential. The dead deserve to be heard. Let them roar.