‘The Boy Detective Fails’ is a charming success at American University

Not every mystery can be solved...and that, says this quirky musical, is okay.

“I’m good at finding out the truth,” says Billy Argo (Spencer Coben), the boy-prodigy detective, near the beginning of this clever, quirky, and quite touching musical. So observant of clues is Billy that he solves case after case—à la Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys—relying only on a magnifying glass, his prodigious powers of deduction, and his two crime-solving partners, buddy Fenton (Patrick Donoghue) and younger sister Caroline (Emma Wallach). But in his earnest search to solve a personal mystery that pains him deeply—why Caroline killed herself—Billy comes up against a harsh truth about adulting: Not everything is solvable and knowable. Or, as the script has it:

People can’t right every wrong.

Life’s most important riddles don’t have an answer.

The story is perfect for retelling by undergrads who themselves are about to face what’s incomprehensible and unachievable in the real world and after.

Spencer Coben (center) as Billy Argo with cast of ‘The Boy Detective Fails.’ Photo by Jeff Watts.

The Boy Detective Fails premiered at Signature Theatre in 2011 with book by Joe Meno, who based it on his fantasy novel of the same name, and music and lyrics by Adam Gwon. For its brief run at American University, the musical has had fresh, youthful life breathed into it by a likable student cast and an utterly charming production directed by Aaron Posner.

Scenic Designer April Joy Vester surrounds the action with wooden shelving containing a hodgepodge of mismatched lamps, props, and oddments—like an archive of evidence. The 16-member cast performs the opening number, which sets up Billy’s story, with such full-throated vivacity the show’s a grabber from the get-go.

In Billy’s quixotic quest for the answer to his sister’s suicide, he meets a showful of comic characters. Among them is the evil Professor Von Golum (Ally Baca), who was imprisoned for kidnapping a girl Caroline’s age, a case that Billy cracked. Another is the charlatan telemarketer Larry (Ross Bollinger), by whom Billy is briefly employed. And then there’s the cute kleptomaniac Penny Maple (Madison Green), with whom Billy falls in love. Throughout, Coben captures winningly Billy’s sincerity and awkwardness.

Madison Green (center) as Penny Maple with cast of ‘The Boy Detective Fails.’ Photo by Jeff Watts.

The music is pleasantly if conventionally show-tuney. (Musical Director Nathan Beary Blustein nimbly conducts a small orchestra from upstage of the shelves. The well-mic’ed solo and ensemble singing serves all the songs well, with standout vocals by Coben, Wallach, Baca, and Graciela Rey as Dale, another kid detective.) But it’s the witty lyrics that are most enjoyably edgy. They do not shy away from postadolescent existential angst, and the cast delivers them with delicious bite.

All the elements of stagecraft are excellent. Britta Joy Peterson has done choreography that is both eyecatching and character-driven. The lighting by Jason Arnold lends a lively theatricality to both the playing area and offstage. Sydney Moore costumes the cast in a smartly enhanced version of street clothes. And Neil McFadden’s sound design includes some amusing voiceovers.

Especially impressive is the fluid and inventive movement of the cast in the space. A song-and-dance solo might have a backup chorus “tapdancing” in sneakers. Or “set pieces” such as desks or a cave or a wall might be physically configured by the ensemble. Or an ingenue might dance with a man’s hat and jacket on a rolling coat rack. Or a complex scene change might be covered by an attention-holding long kiss. Throughout, the dramatic momentum seems driven as much by the characters and urgent storyline as by the actors’ bodies in ingenious motion.

Graciela Rey, Rebekah Umansky, Ross Bollinger (as Larry), Kelsey Walker, and Kacy Sullivan in ‘The Boy Detective Fails.’ Photo by Jeff Watts.

The show hits anxious nerves familiar to anyone who remembers growing up and passing through the know-it-all phase:

It’s scary out there.

I’m afraid of everything.

Evil is all around.

To that age-appropriate agitation, the show offers a strangely assuring and enduring message:

There will always be mystery.

Some things we don’t ever get the answers to.

There’s no reason to be afraid of not knowing the answer to everything.

The Boy Detective Fails at American University succeeds charmingly as both entertainment and useful truth.

Running Time: Approximately two hours, including one intermission.

The Boy Detective Fails plays February 13 to 15, 2020, presented by the American University Department of Performing Art at the Greenberg Theatre, 4200 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Washington, DC. Tickets are available online.

Cast
Billy Argo: Spencer Coben
Caroline Argo: Emma Wallach
Fenton Mills: Patrick Donoghue
Penny Maple: Madison Green
Professor Von Golum: Ally Baca
Larry/Mr. Mammoth: Ross Bollinger
Detective Brown: Janie Gohen
Dale Hardly: Graciela Rey
Violet Dew: Rebekah Umansky
Nurse Eloise: Kacy Sullivan
Therapist: Sultana Oureshi
Ensemble: Domonic Brunnacioni, Zach Dore, Daniella Ignacio, Natasha Sookrah, Kelsey Walker

Musical Numbers

ACT ONE
Prologue: Ensemble, Billy
Billy Argo, Boy Detective: Company
Caroline: Billy, Caroline, Fenton, Ensemble
Amazing: Larry, Billy
Out of My Mind: Professor Von Golum, Billy
Old Tree House: Billy, Caroline, Fenton, Ensemble
As Long As You Are Here: Penny
Evil: Professor Von Golum, Ensemble
Haunted Mansion: Billy, Caroline, Fenton, Ensemble
I Like (The Secret Song): Billy, Penny
After Secrets / Haunted: Billy, Caroline, Fenton, Ensemble

ACT TWO
That’s All: Dale, Violet, Billy, Ensemble
Little Mysteries: Penny, Billy
Amazing (reprise): Larry, Billy
Billy Argo, Boy Detective (reprise): Ensemble
Always: Professor Von Golum
Let Me Save You: Billy, Caroline, Ensemble
Finale: Billy, Penny

Creative and Production Team
Director: Aaron Posner
Musical Director: Nathan Beary Blustein
Choreographer: Britta Joy Peterson
Fight Choreographer: Robb Hunter
Scenic Designer: April Joy Vester
Lighting Designer:  Jason Arnold
Costume Designer: Sydney Moore
Sound Designer: Neil McFadden
Production Manager: Greg Anderson
Technical Director & Assistant Production Manager: John Stahrr
Costume Shop Manager: Barbara Tucker Parker
Lighting & Audio Coordinator: Erin Sullivan
Scenic Charge Artist: Meaghan Toohey
Assistant Directors: Fabiola E. Clemente Lizardi, Daniel Patton
Assistant Music Director: Gideon Brewer
Assistant Music Director: Gideon Brewer
Assistant Choreographer: KT Aylesworth
Stage Manager: Sydney Peltz
Assistant Stage Manager: Andrew McMichael, Rachel Mosely, Fiona Murphey
Production Dramaturg: Mercedes Blankenship
Props Artisan: Cameron Osterneck
Student Props Supervisor: Ayla Taffel
Front of House Mix Engineer: Megan Hastie
Sound Board Operator: Catherine Onsi
Microphone Technician: Alli Pearson
Light Board Operator: Heather Adams
Spotlight Operators: Max Laro, Bella Lundquist
Wardrobe Crew: Alyse Bierly, Nicole Scamuffo
Graduate Operations Assistant: JR Watson

Orchestra
Flute: Thea De Jong
Clarinet: Yannick Joseph
Bass: James Blair
Percussion: Jim Hofmann
Piano/Conductor: Nathan Blustein

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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.

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