By Washington reporter, David Cannon
At the moment, theatres are certainly fascinated by criminals. There’s that “Phantom” guy running around at the Kennedy Centre and Silver Spring Stage is exploring the Leopold and Loeb murder case with Never the Sinner. All of them are amateurs compared with the granddaddy of them all, “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper.”
Oh yes, and it’s a musical. Hey, if Stephen Sondheim can make musicals out of Sweeney Todd and presidential Assassins, why not Saucy Jack? But if you’re expecting a Rocky Horror Picture Show style production, you are in for a big surprise. It turns out that Yours Truly is a sober and meditative reflection on that awful autumn in 1888 London.
But what is it about this Victorian case that still fascinates us? The murderer was never caught so that leaves plenty of room for historians and armchair detectives to devise their own pet theories. Then there is the sensational aspects to the case: the murders were brutal (the Ripper deserved his nickname) and the fact his victims were all prostitutes adds a prurient aspect to the crimes. But most of all, the Ripper was the first in a long line of criminals we are all too familiar with these days: the serial killer.
“Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” the musical is oddly credited to “Frogg” Moody for musical concept and narrative by David J.Taylor. Whatever, someone did their homework!
Most Ripper stories end up trying out their pet theory for who the murderer is or adding a fictional character like Sherlock Holmes/Johnny Depp to solve the crime. Yours Truly sticks to the facts with the help of a mystery narrator who covers the story very thoroughly.
While listed as a rock musical, that is stretching the point. A pop-rock musical is more like it, and quite a few of Moody’s songs could do well enough on the radio with unrelated Ripper lyrics. The upbeat songs like the Salvation Army influenced ‘Bridge of Hope’ all work well but it’s the ballads that really shines in this production.
“Itchy Park,” an elegiac ballad on a notorious open space homeless area in London is one of the loveliest songs I’ve heard this year.
All of this may cause you to scratch your heads – what about the murders? They are there, with five female actresses taking their turns in the spotlight. It may feel that the action stops in the middle of this production, but it gives important information on the times and the infamous Whitechapel area where Jack’s victims lived. Plus a hint at the almost Keystone Cops antics of the London law officers, who found a major piece of evidence, literally some handwriting on the wall, and promptly ruined it.
What is not in doubt is this is a serious rendition of a story too often obscured by sensationalism and junk conspiracy theories. The truth is riveting enough, and the music manages to heighten that effect instead of trivializing it. For those who are fascinated by this shadowy historical figure, ‘The Midnight Theatre’s production is a refreshing change of pace from the usual pulp approach to this subject.
By David Cannon