Milwaukee Chamber Theatre Stages a Flawless ‘Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily’
Reviewed by: Matthew Perta
Photo Credit: Paul Ruffalo
So what happens when a pair of famous characters from Britain’s literary world –characters both real and imagined, each gifted with a brilliant mind – converge to squelch a naughty little scandal involving a beautiful actress from the London stage? That’s what audiences are finding out right now in late summer, with Katie Forgette’s mysterious yet entertaining play, Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily, impeccably staged by the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre as the kickoff to its 2018-19 season.
The pair of famous characters on the case here are none other than that incomparable master of observation that has solved many a mystery, Sherlock Holmes, and the incandescent master of wit known for a remarkable output of creative theatrical works and prose, Oscar Wilde. If you think the pairing of two keenly intelligent souls on stage would result in something altogether boring or snobbish, think again. Forgette’s play deftly weaves together a mysterious plot full of twists and turns that also manages to be deliciously humorous, resulting in an engaging piece of theater that keeps you guessing right up to the final scene.
The plot of this little mystery is simple enough at the outset: it seems that beautiful Lillie Langtry, one of London’s most famous stage actresses, had a torrid affair in her youth with the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII). After a man who’s stolen the letters the two lovers exchanged blackmails Langtry, she calls upon her chum Oscar Wilde for help, who then brings the case to the attention of master detective Holmes. If not Holmes, then who else could solve the case? But the intrigue grows frightfully more complicated, with an embittered character, shimmering piece of jewelry and an illegitimate child thrown into the mix, not to mention Holmes old nemesis, the conniving Professor Moriarty, waiting in the wings to make his grand entrance. (As much as I love mysteries, I hate to review them because I can’t allow myself to reveal more of the plot!)
Equal to the absorbing plot of Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily is a flawless cast that rightfully earned a standing ovation at the end of the matinee performance I saw. Brian J. Gill brilliantly brings to life Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famed detective with a colorful crispness that commands your attention right from the start; Kay Allmand is right on cue with a beautifully drawn Lillie Langtry, a woman who is both vulnerable and intelligent; Matt Daniels, as the ultra-evil Professor Moriarty, totally inhabits the character with an eeriness that’s down-right scary (to me, anyway); and, lastly, Rick Pendzich reaches unimaginable heights as an actor as the luminous Oscar Wilde, taking the audience on a wild (no pun intended) ride with one hilariously-read line after another. Jesse Bhamrah, as Queen Victoria’s confidante, Abdul Karim, and Karen Estrada, as Lillie’s housekeeper Mrs. Tory, are equally memorable.
Two cast members have ties to Chicago theater: Gill has performed with the Goodman Theatre, Chicago Shakespeare Theater and Drury Lane Oakbrook, to name a few; Bhamrah also claims the Goodman Theatre as a credit, along with Chicago Children’s Theater and the Illinois Shakespeare Festival.
The play’s scenic design by Brandon Kirkham and lighting by Eric Appleton, give Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily the proper mix of Victorian elegance and mystery, both playing a crucial role in this most charming of stage productions.
My only complaint with the play is that playwright Forgette has taken Dr. Watson, so winning in Doyle’s stories as Holmes best friend and ever-present right arm, and turned him into a cartoonish character relegated to the sidelines to make way for Oscar Wilde. Nevertheless, Ryan Schabach does a fine job playing Watson, even if he has little to do.
Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily runs through August 26 at the Cabot Theatre of the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway in Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward. Tickets can be purchased in person at the Broadway Theatre Box Office, Monday through Saturday from noon to 6 p.m. Ticket can also be purchased by calling the box office at (414) 291-7800 or online at www.milwaukeechambertheatre.