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Review: ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ at Delaware Theatre Company

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What’s the most impressive technical production in the area? What’s just as astounding as Disney World or any show on Broadway? It’s Delaware Theatre Company’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, a world premiere musical.

Jake Blouch, Rob Riddle, Christopher Sapienza (front), and Joelle Teeter, Rajeer Alford, Clare O’Malley, Kevin Toniazzo-Naughton, and Melissa Joy Hart (back). Photo by Mark Miller.

Jake Blouch, Rob Riddle, Christopher Sapienza (front), and Joelle Teeter, Rajeer Alford, Clare O’Malley, Kevin Toniazzo-Naughton, and Melissa Joy Hart (back). Photo by Mark Miller.

Chicago-based Director Rachel Rockwell has imported the Windy City’s finest to present a truly unprecedented theatrical achievement. The designers have embraced every facet of Ray Bradbury’s acclaimed fantasy/horror novel with both its small-town charm and the nightmare of its sinister carnival. You’ll see autumn colors in the trees and the sky. Birds and bats will fly across the moon. A carousel will swirl out of control. The stage will catch fire, as demons are destroyed and reborn in clouds of beautiful haze. The combination of setting, costumes, lighting, special effects, turntables, movable scrims, projections, slides, video, green-screen effects and film keep the stage in constant motion and the audience in constant wonder.

The triumphant team is: scenic design – Scott Davis (we all loved the train); costumes – Theresa Ham (the clothes resemble falling October leaves); lighting – Greg Hofmann (the moving floor gobos follow the music perfectly); projections – Shawn Sagady (remember the house of mirrors); interactive projection design – Freckled Sky in partnership with Ukrainian company Front Pictures (trains, The Dust Witch and the Monster Montgolfier, tattoos, all mirror scenes, carousels, Mr. Electrico, etc.); and sound design – Garth Helm (so quadraphonic the floor shakes). It all must be seen, heard, and felt to be believed. The co-producers, Yonge Street Theatricals, obviously have big plans for their project.

This approach is perfect for Neil Bartram’s deep, swirling musical score, directed and conducted by Ryan Touhey. The hypnotic music is almost non-stop. When it is combined with the visuals in the DTC’s 389-seat theater, the result is stunning.

Bradbury’s story (the book for the musical is by Brian Hill) is set in Greentown, a typical Midwestern borough of the Depression era. Like many small towns, it’s filled with young people and old people, with nothing in between. The minute the kids finish high school they leave, and the adults that remain are regretful of everything they’ve yearned for in life. The kids can’t wait to grow older, and the grownups wish they were young again. But in true Ray Bradbury fashion, be careful what you wish for.

October is unusually late for a carnival to arrive, but the townsfolk are grateful for the entertaining distraction. But something is different. This ringmaster doesn’t wear red, he wears black. And that name: ‘Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show’? Two youngsters are thrilled by the adventure but gradually come to realize that the ambiance is menacing. The autumn people are coming. If you remember the scent of cotton candy, popcorn or licorice you’ll find yourself seeking this dreamy locale that has “the most beautiful woman in the world,” “Mr. Electro,” or the carousel that runs backwards. Gradually, the townspeople begin to disappear.

Rob Riddle and Stephen Bogardus. Photo by Matt Urban.

Rob Riddle and Stephen Bogardus. Photo by Matt Urban.

There’s a human story as well. Charles Halloway misses his late wife so much that he neglects his son. But his skills as a librarian may just hold the key to uncovering the root of the evil approaching the town. Can he rescue the boys from the undiscovered dangers? Soon they all will learn what it means to confront evil in the eye, as well as traveling that deep expanse from being a child to becoming a man.

Bartram writes words and music, and the nearly through-composed score does not have songs, or at least the composer hasn’t named them. There’s a funny moment when the townspeople remember past carnivals by the smells they loved. There’s a touching sequence where Charles dances with the ghost of his wife, and another when he and his son finally sit down and try to communicate. Most of all, we remember the grotesque sounds of the merry-making, and the fears that the darkness and unexpected visions evoke. The opening number, possibly called “Time Flies,” captures the Bradbury mood immediately.

Director/Choreographer Rockwell has raided the finest theaters of Broadway and Chicago to import this impeccable cast. The two thirteen year old boys are splendid, as they steal off to the carnival looking for adventure and perhaps a little trouble. Sawyer Nunes is Jim, who longs to escape the boredom of the town. John Francis Babbo is Will, the neglected son who is first to suspect that something wicked is on the way. They grow up quickly and painfully.

Marian Murphy is tender as the “old” schoolteacher who dreams of being a little girl again. The ensemble is first seen as the simple townspeople, but they soon metamorphose into the creepy carnival acts. Meghan Murphy is a sensual and frightening Dust Witch, while Rob Riddle brings tremendous presence and menace to the mysterious Mr. Dark, even if I missed many of the lyrics in his welcoming patter song. Nothing was missed with Stephen Bogardus as Charles. Here is the perfect modern musical performer; a fine singing voice with the ability to deliver each word each image in Bartram’s lyrics with crystal clarity. Bogardus movingly conveys the dolor of just being a little too old to achieve any lost dreams, or relate to his son. He is the keystone of a fine ensemble. The inevitable confrontation with Mr. Dark is riveting.

Is the Hill/Bartram work ready for Broadway? The production could hardly be bettered, but there are some questions about the work itself. The lyrics poetically tell the story, but on first hearing, there are not enough of those unforgettable musical moments that can thrust a musical into greatness.

Something Wicked runs the danger of being what my BMI Musical Theater Teacher called a “mood piece,” where ambiance becomes more important than character or narrative. Sweeney Todd is striking because the authors can combine humor, charm, terror and everything else in between. Something Wicked is not yet that varied. The show exudes atmosphere, but the tone might be better sustained as a 90-minute intermission-less piece rather than a prototypical two act musical.

One final image: the Dust Witch has been sent to kill young Jim. He stands on the roof of his house as she levitates him. He flies contorted through the air. The other boy seizes a lighting rod and spears it across the stage into the witch. It hits the mark and she explodes into a thousand pieces. How do they do it? I don’t know and I don’t want to know. Save a trip to Orlando and dare to experience Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Running time: Two hours, with an intermission.

John Francis Babbo and Sawyer Nunes. Photo by Matt Urban

John Francis Babbo and Sawyer Nunes. Photo by Matt Urban

Something Wicked This Way Comes plays through Saturday, October 8, 2017 at Delaware Theatre Company – 200 Water Street in Wilmington, DE. For tickets, call the box office at (302) 594-1100, or purchase them online.

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