nytheatre.com review by Jeff Lewonczyk
The opening moments of Suspect!
gave me pause. Two young Victorian men enter a briefing room at Scotland
Yard and argue in hushed tones about their secret homosexual affair.
Immediately following this, a young clerk reveals to the head Inspector
that she was raped by a detective and demands justice. The next thing we
know, these assembled individuals begin to present the facts in a
sensational murder case, acting out all the parts themselves—complete
with costumes and funny voices—as a musical. Huh?
August 15, 2003
The proceedings jumped from straight-faced melodrama to cheeky whimsy so quickly and clumsily that I was convinced I was in the hands of incompetents. But over the course of the next two hours something funny happened: thanks to composer Keith Herrmann, book/lyric writer Barry Harman, director James Warwick, and a uniformly excellent cast, I became entranced by a show that, despite its overburdened structure, sucked me in every bit as effectively as a good detective story should.
The case in question revolves around the Contessa Nerona, a grifting femme fatale accused of many crimes, including the murder of her husband, Lord Montbarry. The detectives recount the histories of the individuals involved as they tie together numerous testimonies, assuming the roles of the relevant players as they do so. They inhabit a range of characters that includes the sham noblewoman and her shady brother, the Baron Rivar; a dewy-eyed theatre producer; a cockney washerwoman; adenoidal insurance investigators; and many others.
The most successful numbers are the ones presented in the spirit of fun, such as "Letters from the Courier," in which one of Montbarry's former servants describes his master's difficult personality; and "A Terrible Tragedy," in which Baron Rivar coyly distracts the nosy insurance inspectors. The songs that periodically intervene to remind us of the plights of the "real" characters are generally less engaging, though one ("One More Empty Morning," a lament sung by one of the secret lovers) is a first-rate ballad.
The idea of a group of police officers presenting evidence in the form of musical theatre is a stunningly campy premise, and Suspect! could have benefited by exploiting this just a little more. But though the show's creators need to work harder to reconcile its precipitous tonal shifts into a more coherent package, Suspect! remains an entertainment to be reckoned with.