Do you like serial killers?
Many of us seem to be fascinated by them at the least. Judging by the popularity of shows like “Hannibal” and “Mindhunter” and the fascination with gruesome murderers like John Wayne Gacy, Charles Manson, and Ted Bundy, I could hazard a guess that many of you have that interest too. Hey, there’s not one but two movies about Bundy out this year alone. True crime shows, books, and podcasts are legion. Even Sacred Fools Theater Company that is producing the musical I am about to review has a late-night show called “Serial Killers”.
The question that DEADLY asks of you is: what about the victims? Do you know their names? Do they matter aside from being another name on the famous killer’s list? The answer is yes, they do matter and DEADLY makes a convincing case as to why that is.
H.H. Holmes has been touted as the United States first serial killer and he had his handyman/henchman Benjamin Pitezel construct rooms in a building he owned, dubbed a Murder Castle, where the rooms were rigged to aid Holmes in killing their occupants. In DEADLY, the women come to the Murder Castle and are conned and seduced by this charming man, depending on what he wants from them and when he tires of them. Holmes treats the women as if they are disposable and, after each woman dies – this really isn’t a spoiler, she becomes a more permanent resident of the Castle, watching Holmes and uniting with the other women to try and save each new prospective victim and failing that, to make sure that Holmes finally pays for his crimes.
The show’s songs have a decided pop-rock and pop country style, with a complex choral structure of harmony between women, particularly as their numbers grow. Stand out singers are Brittney S. Wheeler, Kristyn Evelen, and Cj Merriman; their voices are lovely to hear and they are strong confident singers, but all the actors do very well in their vocal work – including Keith Allan, in the few lines that he has that are sung. The opening number titled Holmes is very good, introducing the situation and the character of Holmes as sung by the women. It’s got the razzle dazzle. The music and songs all work very well within the context of DEADLY, but none are obtrusive to the work. One of the songs has a piano chord structure that is very similar to Black Sabbath’s Changes, which was very nice to hear. The band, which remains unseen – but consists of Brenda Varda, Zachary Bernstein, Lisa Davis, and Katt Newlon, is superb with excellent musicianship and timing. All of the actors are miked, so while they project well, you will hear everything without a problem.
The set, like the theatre, is limited in space but clever in its construction and usage. This is a small theatre, so you kind of have to go with the set of reality which means you will see actors walking in the semi-dark and moving props and set pieces. But it does give a sense of movement and change, a bit of a mental palate cleanser between each scene. The main part of the set is a small platform and a set of stairs that can be changed into different configurations and a desk and a door frame which are all used very cleverly. There is a projected light behind the scenery wall that turns purple and an ominous red when murders occur. Shadows are used ingeniously to suggest danger and the murders with style.
DEADLY was written by Vanessa Claire Stewart (Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton, Louis and Keely Live At The Sahara) and directed by Jaime Robeldo (Evil Dead In Concert, Stoneface). Ryan Thomas Johnson wrote the music for DEADLY, his first full musical, and has also previously collaborated with Stewart and Robeldo on Stoneface and Robeldo on Astro Boy and the God of Comics. DEADLY itself is well written and while the aim of the piece is clear, it never panders to sermonizing about its overall message. Robeldo and Stewart chose cast members with great accuracy; the actors all have the qualities needed for the characters and charisma to spare. You feel for these women, even when you may not like some of them for what they do. Instead of making them saints, they are ordinary women with needs and desires and vulnerabilities, but all seem to have strong wills, in different ways, and confidence that leads them to make choices that lead to their deaths. This is not a flaw. The victims are not to blame for their murders. Holmes is.
The character of Holmes, as played by Keith Allan, is very charming and on the make with a sublimated contempt for everyone, not just women. He seems to want to punish women who dare to have opinions and strong drives, sexuality, ambition, independence. He desires them, but he cannot handle being with them for very long. It’s almost as if their strength and desire challenge his masculinity in a way that he cannot bear and his inner inability to form real human connections, so his murderous tendencies surface. Allan is a stellar choice for the role and does quiet, but powerful work. He is an actor that has strong charisma, an inner playfulness, and a core of real strangeness that you can’t quite quantify. He is a very capable anti-hero who you cannot completely despise no matter how cruel he gets. The real H.H. Holmes was, in addition to being a killer, a shameless con man, bigamist, and a liar without shame. He confessed to murders that he did not commit and sold his story to the Hearst newspapers for profit. Allan defines a man whose whole life and self are made of deceit, whose finest accomplishment is convincing people to willingly become his victim and give him everything he wants. However, while Holmes is a key figure, DEADLY is really about the women and while he is the driver of the action, he is also a relatively minor character.
Brittney S. Wheeler’s Lizzie Sommers, the original ghost, is a lost woman who wonders if anyone remembers that she was a person, if she matters. Kristyn Evelyn’s Evelyn Stewart is a strong-willed, scientifically minded woman who wants to be an engineer of mechanical wonders of the world and her own destiny. Cj Merriman’s Emeline Cigrand is convincing as a kindly woman who nonetheless does not feel obligated to have a romance with a man that she does not desire. Erica Hanrahan-Ball’s Julia Conner is a brittle and bitter woman in a loveless marriage who is a man’s caretaker rather than a beloved wife and pines for love. Ashley Diane’s Pearl Conner is an intelligent, lonely, and sensitive child who is treated callously by her mother, but still tries to be all that her mother wants her to be. Samantha Barrios’ Minnie Williams is a warm and lovely woman whom society and her sister have convinced her that she is unattractive, because of her body type, but is still filled with hope and generosity of spirit. Rebecca Larsen’s Annie Williams is Minnie’s mean spirited and jealous sister who never misses an opportunity to undermine Minnie because of her own lack of self-confidence.
(I don’t know if this was intentional, but the set-up of the ghosts in limbo trying vainly to change things brought to my mind the lot of the women of the world. Even after women are victims, they still have to do all of the work to make men responsible for their actions.)
Eric Curtis Johnson’s Frank Geyer is an enigma, quiet and dogged, but filled with increasing anger at Holmes. You can see a repressed rage and stunned moral fury at Holmes’ callousness and greed in Johnson’s characterization, even though, as with Allan’s performance, it is more quiet than showy.
David LM McIntyre’s Benjamin Pitezel is a child-like man who tries to conform to the expectations of him but is categorically unable to take real responsibility for the actions, or rather, the inaction of his life. He is the pitiable nerd who leaves human wreckage in his wake because he lacks the will to take any kind of stand. He is the perfect willing tool for Holmes and is disabled by a quack alcohol cure that deprives him of his memory and ability to speak. He is, strangely, the only person that Holmes has an actual attachment to, but that doesn’t stop Holmes from taking advantage of him either. McIntyre does terrific work in the role.
Jaime Robeldo has directed the actors and the action in the show with sensitivity and bravura. Stewart’s script contains complex motivations and moral questions and Robeldo is more than up to the challenge. He brings out the actors’ inner lives and inspires them to really be open in a way that makes it cruel to see them cut down. Stewart’s script, Robeldo’s direction, and the actors’ brave work makes DEADLY sing with life and realism, despite the set of reality of the stage. I was really impressed by the storylines of the Williams sisters and the Conner mother/daughter dynamic. Instead of making all the women heroes, Stewart wrote of flawed women who take their frustrations out on other more vulnerable women. There is a dream reconciliation for the characters in the afterlife of the Murder Castle, but these are real situations that spill emotional blood on the stage. I was sitting in the audience towards the end of the play and while thinking, “No, I’m not going to cry”, tears started flowing down my face. They got me, especially with those particular story lines. The emotional life of DEADLY is real.
DEADLY stars Keith Allan (“ZNation”, “Mad Men”) as H.H. Holmes, Brittney S. Wheeler (Failure: A Love Story, Edward: Black Psycho) as Lizzie Summers, Cj Merriman (The Magic Bullet Theory) as Emeline Cigrand, Kristyn Evelyn (Dr. Nympho and The Zombies, Skullduggery) as Evelyn Stewart, Erica Hanrahan-Ball (“The Office”, Sweeney Todd) as Julia Connor, Ashley Diane (American Girl Live) as Pearl Conner, Samantha Barrios (Caesar and Otto franchise, Wait Until Dark) as Minnie Williams, Rebecca Larsen (“Masters of Sex”, Skullduggery) as Anna Williams), French Stewart (“Third Rock From The Sun”, “Mom”) as Benjamin Pitezel), Eric Curtis Johnson (Borderline, A Teacher’s Obsession) as Frank Geyer.
Yes, that is a very long cast list, but a lot of people get killed. It’s a musical about a serial killer. It’s to be expected. The night I was there, the role of Benjamin Pietzel was played by David LM McIntyre (“Criminal Minds”). McIntyre is splitting the role with French Stewart.
DEADLY is an entertaining musical and an examination of our perception of victims and our own lack of sympathy for them. It shows the human toll of the villain that we are fascinated with and lets the voices of the dead demand not only justice, but their rightful place in history. One of the characters, I believe Evelyn Stewart, asks the question. Yes, Holmes is handsome and dashing man who killed a lot of people, but what about the contribution that I could have made to the world? What about the murdered dreams of the victims? Where is the respect and the fascination for them? Killers take that away from all of us, some more intimately than most, but the world is a poorer place for their absence. These killers do not deserve this glamour and celebrity for taking these souls and potential away from us. The play ends with a beautiful image that burns itself into your mind and is not easily forgotten. I recommend the show highly. Even if you’re not “into” theatre, DEADLY is worth the trip and the ticket price. Live a little. Try something new. It won’t kill you.