It's never cool in Houston during October – is it ever really cool any time of year? – but I know a place where you can kick back, relax, and chill. It's at Classical Theatre Company on Montrose Boulevard, where The Return of Sherlock Holmes envelopes you in comfy shivers and some witty theatrical prestidigitation. There's no social justice, no political correctness, no hashtags to trip you up, only some clever story telling to while away the evening. It's neither deep nor serious, but a pleasing Edwardian excursion into murder and crime solving, led by the world's most famous detective, Sherlock Holmes (John Johnston) and his trusty partner and friend Dr. Watson (Andrew Love).
The adaptation by Timothy N. Evers, who penned Classical's first foray into Holmesiana, The Speckled Band, is bumpier than an English country road, with much too much exposition and not enough actual action, but the words are honey and sweet on the ear, and the cast pronounces them trippingly. And the production, under Melissa Flower's imaginative direction, keeps us entertained with sly stagecraft that has us smiling throughout.
The two-acter is basically two Holmes short stories stitched together, “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter” and “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton.” The first introduces us to Holmes' elder brother Mycroft (Jeff McMorrough), who seems to have more perceptive intuitions than even Sherlock. Why more is not made of this incisive sibling tag-team isn't answered or truly explored satisfactorily, which would have produced a much different play, but it's enough to meet Mycroft and watch him work his own particular forensic magic.
In Act I, Holmes sits in his plush chair and watches the story unfold around him. He's basically absent, which is not what we want when he's the main character. But the story is sufficiently convoluted like some Law and Order episode, so we're distracted long enough not to complain.
The “Milverton” act showcases Holmes and Watson breaking the law as they burgle the house of London's most vile blackmailer (John Dunn) to retrieve compromising evidence against Lady Eva (Callina Anderson) that will derail her engagement. Not one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's most scintillating plots, “Milverton” places poor Holmes and Watson behind a curtain while justice is meted out. Later, the famed detective has the moral rectitude to refuse Scotland Yard's plea for help in solving the case. He defends criminal Eva against victim Milverton. It's a nice twist.
Return is great fun not because of what's happening, but because of how it's happening. In the antic spirit of Mark Brown's Around the World in 80 Days or Patrick Barlow's The 39 Steps, we're firmly plopped in the theater world of make-believe. It's a giddy place to be, child-like and absolutely charming, marvelously stylized. Furled umbrellas can be used as doors, London fog is a yellow piece of cloth, a jail cell is a picture frame with two more umbrellas set perpendicular, street lamps are flashlights held by actors standing on chairs, wayward hands can be cats, and a schoolhouse blackboard is both wall and entrance through that wall. Meanwhile, the cast, except for Johnston and Love, swap hats or coats and quickly reappear as someone else.
As Holmes, Johnston is nattily precise and clipped, agile and sleek; Love, with his wondrous walrus mustache and intrepid friendship, is the best Watson since filmdom's Nigel Bruce. Everyone else gets up in the game with gleeful spirit. Anderson is a perfect damsel in distress; Calvin Hudson might be a Collier's Illustration lithograph come to life in his triptych portraits; and Jarred Tettey plants tongue firmly in cheek as seductive Ms. Montague. Everyone's having a great time, thanks to Flower's flowing and ingenious staging which uses cassette tapes (remember them?) as letters and fedoras as noir crime haberdashery, instead of Holmes' deerstalker.
Although we were warned in the program that gunshots will occur, the gun misfired opening night, but it didn't matter. In our suspension of disbelief, we heard them loud and clear. We smiled at the make-believe.
The Return of Sherlock Holmes continues through October 21 at 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and October 10 and 15, 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Classical Theatre Company. Chelsea Market Theatre, 4617 Montrose. For information, call 713-963-9665or visit classicaltheatre.org, $10 to $25.