Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure, the original 1899 "comedy" featuring the world's most famous detective, was written by actor William Gillette with assistance by creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Gillette, a Broadway star of immense magnitude, used the play as a vehicle for himself, as Holmes, that he would play for decades. It was Gillette who coined the phrase, "Oh, this is elementary, my dear fellow," as well as giving the iconic mastermind his deerstalker hat and meerschaum pipe. Most of what we think of when we think "Sherlock Holmes" derives from Gillette's interpretation, which he perfected until 1932, when he retired after many farewell performances. Next up, from 1939 on, Basil Rathbone honed Holmes into movie legend; but the character had been firmly cemented in place by handsome matinee idol Gillette.
Steven Dietz's 2006 "adaptation" of Gillette/Doyle's play is rather false advertising, as it's technically a rewrite of two Holmes adventure stories, A Scandal in Bohemia and The Final Problem, with some of the old play's dialogue used as spackle to join the two stories together. The updating doesn't do much justice to the original, other than allow sturdy sidekick Dr. Watson to act as narrator to cover holes and move the various plots along with rather clunky seesawing. The spackle job doesn't hide the seams. Why use this new play at all when the original, which has a fine pedigree and a history of continuous theatrical success, is at hand?
When we first glimpse the A.D. Players stage, there's a tantalizing hint of steampunk gothic in the setting by Mark A. Lewis. The brickwork at the back and up the sides, the wooden scaffolding and the metal Erector-set pylons scream Sweeney Todd Victoriana. Two faux gas lamps hang high up, stage right and left. A haze of blue, thanks to lighting designer Andrew Vance, lies over the scene like demonic fog, creepy and atmospheric. This certainly sets the stage, a part of which cleverly revolves to keep the action nonstop.
But the gothic doesn't last long, except for the look of the firearms, which Dr. Demento would have been happy to have designed, for the blue haze is quickly dispelled by rudimentary lighting that washes over Holmes's bleak London like fluorescence. Lit up, even the subterranean gasworks are as bright and cheery as a diner. This doesn't help the atmospheric sheen.
Except for those off-putting Victor Herbert operetta togs for the King of Bohemia's entrance, Donna Southern Schmidt supplies sumptuous period costumes. The duster and goggles are a splendid touch when Holmes dashes off in a horseless carriage.
In a CliffsNotes version, here's the plot of this Victorian whirligig: The future king of Bohemia (Craig Griffin) has been compromised by a former love affair with opera diva Irene Adler (Katharine Hatcher), and pleads with Holmes (Chip Simmons) to get back an incriminating photograph of the duo. Up to his pipe in attempting to snare his arch-nemesis Professor Moriarty (Jeff McMorrough), Holmes jumps at the chance to prove his incredible powers and perhaps meet the one woman on earth he finds fascinating.
Accompanied by his "one fixed point," his dearest friend Dr. Watson (Blake Weir), the dynamic duo is off on adventure, which includes multiple disguises, Irene's hasty marriage to a scoundrel (Marty Blair), blackmail, ransom, abduction, possible asphyxiation, a Cockney safecracker (Brad Zimmerman), numerous near-death escapes, shuttered carriage rides, sleuthing of the highest kind and shady parlor maids (Leslie Reese), all ending in a final, thunderous confrontation with Moriarty atop Switzerland's treacherous Reichenbach Falls.
This is heady stuff, breathless with whiz-bang action and Holmesian dialogue: "This is a three-pipe problem...the game's afoot...you see but do not observe." Fortunately, the ensemble cast plays the hell out of it, staying one step away from the precipice. They keep a knife-edge distance between parody and reverence, never actually winking at us, although we know they dearly want to.
Simmons plays Holmes like an effete cat with a catnip dash of Noël Coward as he springs about with deft tread or suddenly turns to pounce on a point well made. He's odd, like some alien dropped into polite society, which in fact he is, as he unleashes his unworldly powers of observation and deduction. He takes pleasure in his intelligence as the smartest person in the room, and he knows it. When his "cold heart" is melted by Irene and Holmes takes her impulsively in his arms and kisses her ardently, the audience gasps -- and snickers -- at this unlikely burst of passion. (In the original play, she places her head upon his shoulder as the curtain falls. There is no kiss.)
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Matching Simmons is Weir as debonair Dr. Watson. No old doddering fool, like Nigel Bruce in the movies, young Weir dodders only because he hobbles with a cane. Although in Holmes's shadow, Weir brings us into confidence by his implacable normalcy in face of Holmes's weird brilliance. (With his handsome stage presence, as close as we're going to get to Gillette's magnetism, Weir would also make an ideal Holmes.) Throughout, McMorrough blusters with menace, a worthy foe, and Hatcher is the very picture of a Victorian diva stung by love. The subsidiary roles are all handled with assurance and a sense of fun, kept spinning by director Christy Watkins.
Although the play creaks, A.D. Players keeps it well oiled. If they'd turn down the lights a bit, the odd Mr. Holmes and his Baker Street Irregulars would sparkle like gas light.