review by: Ali Goldstein
According to young detective Billy Argo’s cardinal rule of sleuthing, no crime must be left unsolved. Yet, the title of Signature Theatre’s new musical “The Boy Detective Fails” keys you into the story’s conclusion even before the first note is sung: Billy Argo, golden boy detective, will fail.
Told on a stage of tiny colorful houses that barely come up to the actors’ knees, “Boy Detective” unfolds with the quirky fun we’ve come to expect of small-town America yarns. This story, however, is about more than our small-town roots and growing-up. When thirty-year-old Billy moves back home to understand his sister Caroline’s inexplicable suicide, it’s clear that the story’s power comes from this simple fact: we know Billy fails before he does. As resonant acting, a moving score, and carefully-choreographed whimsy encourage us to poke through the corners of our own nostalgia, the great mystery becomes not why his sister commits suicide. It’s how at the end of this beautiful and emotionally-precise musical we’re ok with the fact that Billy fails — even just a little bit hopeful.
Billy’s hometown is disappearing as the musical opens. The townspeople sing about the girl next door and the pet rabbit, all disappeared. They carry photos of their loved ones close to their chest when they commute to the city for work. And Caroline’s name sung by the townspeople — Care-O–Line — captures her lifetime of sadness in a triptych of sounds. We never hear her story, but the repeated melody of her name sung aloud again and again suffices: we already know everything.
Amid this introduction enters Billy Argo, returning home after ten years at the St. Vitus’ Hospital for the Mentally Ill with a suitcase full of medication and a minuscule group home he clutches like a purse. Played pitch-perfectly by the Helen Hayes award-winning Stephen Gregory Smith, Billy confronts his disappearing hometown with petulant wariness. He is at once ten and thirty, frowning at a world he used to understand. The plot’s story unfolds. He follows false clues; he falls in love. And the story’s mystery tumbles and expands into so many others, the central of which is this: how can Billy grow-up?
This is a story told in the details. The play manages to encompass the dark and the whimsical — and veer dizzyingly between them — because of how it only ever gives you just enough. In one scene, Billy’s love interest Penny Maple — a kleptomaniac cleaning woman who insists on wearing all pink — dresses a coat rack in her late-husband’s jacket and makes-believe they’re dancing. We watch from the wings with Billy; because the scene is told in a tune and coat rack and nothing else, we’re implicated somehow in her loneliness and heartbreaking hope.
Set against the background of a fairytale perfect blue sky and tiny buildings that dot the stage, the townspeople look like grown-up children playing house in a Polly Pocket world. How the characters interact with the surreal set, however, gives the story urgent emotional truth. When Penny feels she’s being looked at too closely by Billy, she opens the roof of a tiny house and crawls inside: you never question the scene’s reality because of how it rings so emotionally true.
Reading the description of “Boy Detective,” it’s difficult to imagine the story as a musical. After seeing the show, however, it’s hard to imagine the story as anything but. As the story melts between reality and dreams, fiction and madness, the musical score connects all the dots: the melody of Caroline’s name repeating amid the plot’s chaos becomes like a ghost the protagonist can never quite shake. There’s something resoundingly upbeat about the music but also unbelievably sad; sort of like “Our Town” meets “Newsies” — but in the best possible way.
Though “Boy Detective” is based on a book, what makes the show successful is that it’s not a singular vision. There is a clear meeting of minds: everything from the acting to the music to the precise choreography hits the same perfect one-two note of sadness and joy, that weird melancholy of childhood spinning into adulthood.
“Boy Detective” never just hands you the story, but requires you to assemble it clue by clue. As a result, what would otherwise be just a sweet bildungsroman becomes instead something much more moving and complex as we confront with Billy the maddening riddle of growing up.