Murder. Mayhem. America’s first serial killer. The Chicago World’s Fair. Imagine all of these concepts brutally twisted together into a full length rock opera and you’ll have a glimpse of what the Baltimore Rock Opera Society is putting on the stage with their latest original production: Murdercastle.
Written by Artistic Director Jared Margulies and Directed by Barbara Geary, this disturbing tale, based on the true events of notorious serial killer H. H. Holmes, explores the horrific empire he created and the brutal fate of his victims. With Musical Director John DeCampos guiding “The Onslaught Orchestra” through a range of music that includes rock, death metal, and full string orchestrations, Murdercastle is a surprisingly intense performance of epic proportions that will leave you thoroughly amazed by all of its wonderment, despite its dark and sinister nature.
Gather round all ye who dare enter the curious carnival that awaits the opera goers pre-show in the playhouse lobby. Designed by Rebecca Karten to encompass the carnival atmosphere, striped canvas is draped from the ceiling and the space is littered with performers of the bizarre and unusual side-show variety. This enticing invitation includes fortune tellers, contortionists, and magicians just to name a few. But do be cautious as these…performers… welcome you to The Great White City, all may not always appear as it seems.
In true operatic style, Set Designer Joe Martin constructs a larger-than-life performance setting that is utterly mind-blowing. And just when you think you’ve had a full moment to absorb everything you see, Martin’s designs twist about like the gears inside a clock transforming a three story bell tower into an enormous locomotive steam engine, by help of a giant free-swinging crane. Fully functioning flights of stairs unfold from a gigantic counter top and hotel main desk. The genius applied to making this set fully functional is beyond compare; complimented by the fact that Director Barbara Geary showcases flawless blocking, fully utilizing the three elevated levels of staging throughout the production. Martin is a master of his craft, and the the set is such an accomplishment that it becomes an integral unspoken character in this original masterpiece.
Technical spectacle really draws the audience into the warped and twisted world of this incredible musical. There are so many amazing things that you will simply have to attend to see for fear that I will otherwise ruin a great deal of shocking and amazing moments that occur throughout the production. The Puppet Department infuses incredible moments of bone-chilling work into this show, that you won’t believe until you see it. There are lights in costumes, and special effects that are just utterly mind-blowing.
Movement Director Lily Kind brings a series of unique choreographies into this production that really set an inferno of creativity blazing brightly throughout the performance. The most noteworthy moment is the dance number that occurs during the Electricity Ball, with shadowed skeletons infusing their way into the roundabout dancing that is nothing short of mesmerizing. Kind’s work is exemplified again during the nightmare and dream sequences with everyone’s bodies moving with distortion, to augment the notion of a nightmarish existence.
With the book written by Jared Margulies and a slew of creative minds behind the music and lyrics, this is one of the most original productions I’ve ever seen. It’s dark and twisted with inspirations that pull from a myriad of different sources, gothic, rock, carnivals, opera, murder, Steampunk, with too many to list. Erica Patoka is a featured lyricist for the various numbers in the production and she drives home a haunting message with each of these songs. Margulies’ idea of glorifying this demented madman, immortalizing him in a rock opera is pure genius. Add to that the incredible and powerful sound of “The Onslaught Orchestra” led by John DeCampos, and you have a recipe for diabolical success.
The Onslaught Orchestra pumps volts of electricity into their sound, blowing up each song with intense emotions that drive the movement on stage. And knowing that the majority of the orchestrations are composed as a collaborative effort among the members of the band is another impressive feat that evolves from this labor of love. It must be heard to be believed.
The ensemble brings a formidable presence to the stage as there are quite a few of them. Heard reinforcing the haunting sound of songs like “The White City” their vocal prowess is enough to blow the roof off the Autograph Playhouse. Ever present among them, though completely silent is The Foreman (Jack Sossman). A creepy individual who drifts in and out of focus on the stage, particularly during the scene changes, looking ominous and creating a sense of true foreboding danger wherever he goes. The leader of the workers, and later doubling up as the audible Emcee, Sossman’s looming presence is enough to send shivers up even the bravest man’s spine.
Featured as one of the sideshow displays, Madam Opticon (Kay-Megan Washington) is an eerie vocal delight whose enigmatic presence only heightens the surreal experience of the second half of the show. Washington’s serene and yet treacherous voice flows in hypnotic waves during “Madam Opticon.” Her voice sounds almost ghostly, as if she truly were channeling the sound from another world.
The underling who meets problem after problem in this production is Pitezel (Chris Krysztofiak). But his problems belong only to his character as he exudes a superior and flawlessly powerful song in his duet with his wife Mrs. Pitezel (Sarah Ford Gorman) “Pitezel’s Predicament.” Krysztofiak’s voice is filled with a pleading desperation laced with dreams as he tried to promise her the world. Gorman delivers one of the most emotionally charged and heavily loaded pieces of the production, belting out over the incredibly loud orchestra with a harrowing hellacious sound pouring out from her soul. She owns this moment with her vocal fury and steals the show with this song.
Another furious voice, who much like Gorman we only hear briefly, comes from the ruthless and determined detective Frank Geyer (Rex Anderson). With rough rocker vocals, Anderson nonetheless delivers a fierce sound during “Geyer’s Chase,” matching perfect harmonies with Annie and Holmes as it becomes a trio of voices determined to be heard in their causes. His brutal and edgy character brings a sense of justice to the warped darkness that seems unending in this show.
Annie (Moira Goldie Horowitz) is the broken ingénue in this production. Horowitz embodies an eager young woman determined to uncover the truth of her sister’s disappearance. She flirts politely with Holmes, but her sweet and innocent nature is no disguise for her true vocal power. Her featured solo “Poisons of the Gilded Age” is a stunning performance of emotional turmoil spinning at its fastest. Horowitz belts her grief and determination, all wound up into one shockingly powerful sound both here and in the song’s reprise. A truly gifted voice for a deeply complex role, Horowitz does not disappoint as the leading lady.
At first seemingly harmless, H. H. Holmes (Derek Vaughan Brown) is slowly revealed to be a maniacal lunatic with an insatiable bloodlust. Brown is the epitome of villainy personified, especially when he sings; that harsh sound of evil not sneaking but bursting its way into songs like “My Life’s Work” and “Slaughterhouse.” Portraying the demented man with such a ferocious disposition, Brown frightens even the bravest of men with his presence alone, and when he sings his final song, “Sinew and Bones” it’s terrifying. Brown delivers a performance that’s well worth a standing ovation.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.