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Theater Review: “The Hollow” at Signature Theatre

A new musical adaptation brings Washington Irving’s tale to life

Henriette Van Brunt (Sherri Edelen) teaches little Pieter (Noah Chiet) to “Be Not Afraid.” Photograph by Scott Suchman courtesy Signature Theater

☆☆ out of four

The Headless Horseman is more of a looming, menace of an idea than a tangible villain in The Hollow, Signature Theatre’s musical interpretation of Washington Irving’s classic tale, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. The real conflicts that play out are between safety and adventure, questioning and acceptance, and even religion and secularism.

It’s an intriguing approach to expanding and adapting Irving’s spare but haunting story into a musical—one of two world premieres currently running in repertory at Signature—for a contemporary audience. The Ichabod Crane that arrives on the scene in Tarrytown isn’t the gangly, awkward schoolmaster of the original story. Sam Ludwig’s Crane is a wry, affable academic out of Boston, who brings with him a passion for stories of heroism and excitement. Formerly unfamiliar tales like Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels engage precocious children like Pieter Claassen (Noah Chiet) and challenge former schoolmistress Katrina Van Tassel (Whitney Bashor). But Ichabod’s methods soon draw unwelcome attention from the town’s conservative establishment, who are already in a moralistic frenzy about the Headless Horseman, a devil they believe brings punishment to those who shy away from God’s will.

Ludwig takes a subtle, charismatic approach to Crane, and his casual, comfortable comic timing well serves writer Hunter Foster’s book, which isn’t too macabre to offer a surprising number of gently amusing moments. Crane proves a frustrating rival to Van Tassel’s fiance, Brom Van Brunt (Evan Casey); here, Van Brunt is less Irving’s broad caricature of masculinity and more a dismissive stick-in-the-mud. Van Brunt is cut from the same cloth as many of the townspeople, though none musters quite as much fervor as the formidable Henriette Van Brunt, played with voracious self-righteousness by Sherri Edelen, one of the show’s vocal powerhouses, who whips her contemporaries up into a frenzy against Crane.

The Hollow isn’t just a morality tale—foremost, it’s a musical, and composer Matt Conner has fashioned a production with harmonic, complex melodies and a lyrical approach that alternates between the poetic style of Irving’s time and more modern, simple language. But The Hollow’s songs frequently refuse to commit to a single style or theme, changing tone, key and direction several times throughout. Occasionally, this can be interesting, such as when Crane’s “Blue” vacillates between a melancholy meditation and a rousing romantic anthem as he contemplates his feelings for Van Tassel. But more often, it’s merely frustrating.

Director Matthew Gardiner successfully captures an atmosphere of eeriness and unease; his set is a minimalist forest where lighting and sound are responsible for much of the show’s gloom and tension. He wraps up The Hollow abruptly, and the story’s tragic resolution, with many questions still left unanswered, proves more unsettling than the thought of a ghostly figure and his horse with glowing red eyes.

The Hollow runs through October 16 at Signature Theatre. Tickets ($72 to $82) are available at Signature Theatre’s Web site.

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