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Theater Review: “The Boy Detective Fails” at Signature Theatre

A young hero grows up in a quirky new musical

Caption: Caroline (Margo Seibert) and brother Billy (Stephen Gregory Smith) come up with their own secret word in The Boy Detective Fails. Photograph by Scott Suchman, courtesy Signature Theatre

☆☆☆ 1/2 stars out of four

What happens when the Hardy Boys grow up? Or if the Scooby Doo gang had falsely accused Old Man Smithers? Or if Encyclopedia Brown came back to town after 10 years in a mental institution to try to find some sense in his sister’s mysterious suicide?

Okay, the last premise doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as easily, but together they sum up the spirit of The Boy Detective Fails, a quirky new musical from writer Joe Meno and composer/lyricist Adam Gwon. It’s one of two musical world premieres Signature Theatre is staging in repertory to launch its 2011-12 season. The boy detective in question is Billy Argo (Stephen Gregory Smith), who, along with his crack team of sidekicks that includes his sister Caroline (Margo Seibert) and his dorky friend Fenton (James Gardiner), solved mysteries with uncanny success from the time he was ten years old until heading off to college.

The musical opens colorfully and cartoonishly, its sky an uncanny blue and with a set, made up of miniature town landmarks, that feels like a living dollhouse. But The Boy Detective Fails quickly lets us know things won’t remain sunny for long—a jaunty summary of the kids’ mystery-solving successes abruptly transitions into a reenactment of Caroline’s gruesome death.

Director Joe Calarco’s production proceeds as part nostalgic adventure story, part self-aware black comedy. It’s easy to get caught up in Billy’s final, most important mystery, following him through clues and red herrings to make some sense out of Caroline’s choices, as he strives along the way to get to the bottom of the “Pawn Shop Kidnapper” case they may have gotten wrong years ago. The story, though, sometimes leaves loose ends hanging (the town, for example, is introduced as having supernatural-sounding troubles that never really get explained), and its larger themes can get caught up in cutesiness (the duet “Little Mysteries” relies heavily on clichés to drive home a syrupy message about not getting too ambitious).

As the shell-shocked Billy is thrust reluctantly back into reality, Smith, with his deadpan, halting delivery, proves to be an appealing straight man. His tentative romance with Penny Maple (Anika Larsen), an equally damaged bus-commuting shoplifter, is one worth rooting for. As the crazy-but-sympathetic Maple, Larsen commands the show’s most engaging musical number, “As Long As You Are Here,” with her lilting, old-fashioned singing voice as she glides around the room, lost in her own world, in an intimate dance with a coat rack. Smith’s chemistry isn’t reserved for Larsen; it also extends to Billy’s love/hate relationship with Professor Von Golum (Thomas Adrian Simpson), his childhood nemesis whose threat has been softened with old age. Simpson’s has-been villain is alternately amusing and pitiable, with a threat of actual malice beneath.

The production has some problems with sound balance—chorus numbers sometimes feel like they’re shouting at each other. But largely, the songs of The Boy Detective Fails are catchy and diverting. One standout is “Evil,” where Von Golum offers his thoughts on the true nature of humanity. And the snappy Act Two opener, “That’s All,” set in a former child detective support group, is The Boy Detective at its best, poking fun at the show’s slightly ridiculous premise and its Nancy Drew-ish pop culture roots.

The Boy Detective Fails runs through October 16 at Signature Theatre. Tickets ($72 to $86) are available at the theater’s Web site.

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