Encore Michigan

Sherlock Holmes returns to Purple Rose with splendor

Review September 29, 2019 Patrice Nolan

CHELSEA, Mich.— The Purple Rose Theatre Company knows a good thing when it sees it, which is why it commissioned Michigan playwright David MacGregor to create its season opener, Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Fallen Soufflé. It’s another PRTC world premiere and sequel to MacGregor’s hit of the 2018 season’s Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Elusive Ear. This adventure reunites the superb cast and design team for another engaging visit to 221B Baker Street.

Adhering to his winning formula of immersing Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional characters in well-researched factual elements of Victorian London, MacGregor’s new comedy is rich in context and historical characters. In this play, Sherlock Holmes (Mark Colson), Dr. John Watson (Paul Stroili), Irene Adler (Sarab Kamoo), and the daughter of master-criminal Moriarty, Marie Chartier (Caitlin Cavannaugh) are involved in an intrigue that includes the King of Chefs, Auguste Escoffier (Tom Whalen), and the future King of England, Prince Albert, Prince of Wales (David Bendena). The two men share a love of fine food and beautiful women, which has gotten them both into enough hot water that they require extrication by Sherlock Holmes.

English traditions, royal privilege, and the finer points of gourmet food preparation are key themes in MacGregor’s play. He also suggests what we are seeing is the real Holmes and Watson — not the icy polymath and bumbling sidekick that Watson has invented for his popular stories. Of course, the comedy itself is a bit broad — the sensational nature of the characters demands it — but director Michelle Mountain keeps everything ticking like Holmes’ own pocket watch.

The play opens to the strains of a single violin, presumably played by Holmes, as it renders a plaintive version of the Happy Birthday song. In fact, it is Irene Adler’s birthday. She is the American paramour of Holmes, presumed dead after the Affair in Bohemia. Her identity is protected by Dr. Watson’s narrative device, used in his stories for The Strand, in which he misidentifies Irene Adler as their landlady, Mrs. Hudson. Adler’s true identity has been closely protected, and her fretful state at the play’s open is caused by nothing more sinister than the prospect of eating a traditional English Breakfast, prepared for her by Dr. Watson, replete with beans and kidneys on toast but sans the blood pudding for now.

Adler is spared the trauma of tasting her breakfast when a man dressed in chef whites and brandishing a butcher’s knife runs into the room and falls into a dead faint. Holmes and Watson begin to speculate on his identity, scrutinizing the particular soil found wedged in his shoes, his sartorial habits, and the make of the butcher’s knife. But Ms. Adler recognizes him straightaway as the famed French chef  of the exclusive Savoy Hotel, Aguste Escoffier. And when the chef is roused, he is delighted to find that Adler is NOT dead. Clearly, they’ve known each other in the Biblical sense, and Adler is still peeved that the dessert Escoffier promised to name for her has since become famous as Peach Melba, named for Australian opera singer Nellie Melba. Harumph!

When Escoffier heads to the kitchen to make Adler a proper breakfast, she and Holmes sneak off, leaving Watson alone when the villainess of the previous play, Marie Chartier, makes an appearance. She need’s Watson’s help, and though he knows better than to trust her, he is intrigued by her offer of a good story. She slips away before Escoffier returns with breakfast. When Holmes and Adler return, their self-absorption prevents Watson from alerting them to Chartier’s visit. Quickly, they are interrupted by another visitor, a masked aristocrat who claims his life has been threatened by anarchists. He is revealed to be the Duke of Wales, Prince ‘Bertie,’ who is an unrepentant womanizer and unseemly gourmand. Repulsed, Holmes sees no reason to save him, and the incensed Irene Adler offers to murder him herself. Only Dr. Watson believes that the good of the nation demands their intervention and on this point the play finds its balance.

MacGregor’s script harnesses historical fact to drive his inventive plot. What inspired the playboy Prince Bertie, disparaged by Queen Victoria herself, to become such an admirable and effective monarch when crowned as Edward VII? What scandal at the Savoy Hotel precipitated the exit of both its chef and manager? What is the real history of the Kohinoor diamond? And why, on God’s green earth, did the ritualized consumption of the delicacy, baked ortolan, require the eater to put a napkin over his head? (Hint: it’s not embarrassment, but it should be.) Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Fallen Soufflé addresses all these burning issues, while preempting political assassinations, anarchy, blackmail, and indigestion. 

Loyal patrons and newcomers alike will delight in the mastery with which Colson, Kamoo, Stroili and Cavannaugh resurrect their characters for this sequel. Tom Whalen, who appeared as Van Gogh in the first play, gives us an Escoffier who is as petulant about his art as he is dismissive of the niceties of British laws and conventions. David Bendena, as Prince Bertie, steals most of the scenes he’s in — portraying and entitled, a stomach appearing pregnant with multiple game-birds and cakes per day–an oddly naive twit for whom we somehow feel sorry.

The entire play is set in the flat at 221B Baker Street — an intricate, sumptuous design by Bartley H. Bauer with perfectly detailed properties by Danna Segrest. The gracious Victorian costumes are by Suzanne Young. Lighting is by Dana L. White,  sound is by Brad Phillips, and Devin Faught is the stage manager.

The script, cast and production values combine for a perfect evening’s entertainment. Patrons won’t be disappointed, unless they fail to secure tickets for what is sure to be another sell-out show for the Purple Rose.

Week of 9/19/2022

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