You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Lemony Snicket’s The Composer Is Dead

Like an extra-large, colorful box containing a thimble, "Lemony Snicket's The Composer is Dead" is 98% wrapping.

With: Geoff Hoyle, Jenny Campbell, Frankie Cordero, Marta Mozelle MacRostie, Edouard Sanko, Ronny Wasserstrom, Bettina Devin, Roger L. Jackson, Jarion Monroe, Asher Terr, Erin-Kate Whitcomb.

Like an extra-large, colorful box containing a thimble, “Lemony Snicket’s The Composer is Dead” is 98% wrapping. Animation, puppetry, ingenious set design and the antics of Berkeley Rep’s preferred clown Geoff Hoyle are applied liberally to text by the eponymous, pseudonymous author (aka Bay Area’s Daniel Handler) of playfully creepy children’s books. Yet even at barely past an hour’s length, this intended cheekily offbeat family show feels very thin, its mild amusements likely to induce some seat-squirming amongst younger viewers.

The evening is officially divided into two parts, first being a prolonged curtain-raiser called “The Magic of Living, Breathing Theater.” That’s what Your Charming Host (Hoyle) — as he immodestly calls himself — keeps pompously promising us, in addition to “the wondrous music of the world’s greatest living composer.”

When those planned entertainments don’t arrive on schedule, said host goes backstage to investigate. Or rather he interacts with a backstage world of projected video animation (designed, like the second part’s puppets, by Erik Sanko and Jessica Grindstaff of NYC multidiscliplinarians Phantom Limb) in which he and a skeleton-slash-stage manager discover “Everything is going wrong!”

They identify one problem after another, from a director suffering from “artistic temperament” (he’s a baby wailing in a highchair) to a stubbornly nude actor. The root trouble, however, turns out to be the fact that aforementioned composer has been murdered.

This original material leads into “The Composer Is Dead,” which Handler previously published as a book and recited to the live accompaniment of Nathaniel Stookey’s San Francisco Symphony-commissioned score. Phantom Limb, B-Rep artistic director Tony Taccone and other collaborators labor mightily bringing it to visual life, the curtain finally rising to reveal a pit of grotesque human-scaled marionette “musicians” seated before giganticized 19th-century paper puppet-playhouse.

Now an equally pompous police Inspector, Hoyle interrogates the orchestra. Each section has a characteristic alibi — the flutes were too busy imitating birds, etc. — which often prompts background tableaux of waltzing cut-out figures or shadow-puppet dramatics.

Deciding that the conductor must be guilty, as his like has “been murdering composers for years,” then triggers a laundry list of other late musical geniuses Stookey evokes in brief strokes.

The script is, in fact, one tongue-in-cheek checklist after another — backstage disasters, instrumental suspects, melodious victims — and as such doesn’t really lend itself to stage incarnation, despite all imaginative effort. Handler ribs himself by having the skeleton complain “Clever writing and cheap wordplay aren’t the same thing,” but in truth this overblown contraption too often presents the latter as the former. Its punning verbosity might charm on the illustrated page, in concert or as fodder for a short cartoon. As this multimedia not-quite-musical’s frail raison d’etre, it grows tiresome.

The limited expressive charm of the puppets and animated figures leaves this essentially a one-man-show, despite five puppeteers and another five actors’ pre-recorded character voices. While Hoyle can do no wrong for much of Berkeley Rep audience, those immune to his broad shtick will find a little goes a very long way in “Composer’s” elaborately dressed cup o’ Edward Gorey-lite whimsy.

Underlining its struggle to work as a stage entity, the evening ends with projected “final credits” stretched to allow several minutes’ ersatz “bloopers,” “outtakes” and “making-of” bits.

Some among these are more amusing than anything in the preceding hour of (mostly) “living, breathing theater.”

Popular on Variety

Lemony Snicket's The Composer Is Dead

Berkeley Repertory Theater, Berkeley; 650 seats; $73 top

Production: A Berkeley Repertory Theater presentation of a play in one act by Lemony Snicket, based on his book, conceived by Snicket, Phantom Limb, Tony Taccone and Geoff Hoyle. Directed by Taccone. Music, Nathaniel Stookey.

Creative: Set, costumes and puppetry; Jessica Grindstaff and Erik Sanko; lighting and projection design, Alexander V. Nichols; sound, James LeBrecht; film producer, Lisa Cook; film photographer, Martin Rosenberg; film underscoring, Matthew Compton and Asa Taccone; production stage manager, Michael Suenkel. Opened, reviewed Dec. 2, 2010. Running time: 65 MIN.

Cast: With: Geoff Hoyle, Jenny Campbell, Frankie Cordero, Marta Mozelle MacRostie, Edouard Sanko, Ronny Wasserstrom, Bettina Devin, Roger L. Jackson, Jarion Monroe, Asher Terr, Erin-Kate Whitcomb.

More Legit

  • Jonathan Groff

    Listen: Jonathan Groff Knows He's a Spitter

    If you’ve seen “Little Shop of Horrors” — the starry revival headlined by Jonathan Groff in a small Off Broadway theater — you probably noticed that Groff spits a lot when he speaks onstage. He’ll be the first to tell you that he’s been a spitter as long as he can remember, but “Little Shop” [...]

  • Key Largo

    L.A. Theater Review: Andy Garcia in 'Key Largo'

    Would “Casablanca” make a good play? Guess what: It was first produced on stage as “Everybody Comes to Rick’s.” How about “Key Largo,” the black-and-white Bogie-and-Bacall vehicle in which a handful of misfits find themselves trapped in a South Florida hotel while a hurricane rages outside? In fact, the 1948 John Huston film was adapted [...]

  • Sophia Anne Caruso and Alex Brightman'Beetlejuice'

    How 'Beetlejuice: The Musical' Became a Broadway Turnaround Story

    Christopher Kuczewski is what you’d call a Netherling. It’s a reference to the netherworld inhabitants who populate “Beetlejuice: The Musical,” the off-beat adaptation of the 1988 hit film that’s becoming an unlikely Broadway turnaround story. And that designation, which has been given to superfans of the show, goes a long way towards explaining how a [...]

  • Lena Waithe'The Inheritance' Broadway play opening,

    Lena Waithe, Anderson Cooper Attend Broadway Opening of 'The Inheritance'

    “The Inheritance” pulls viewers in many directions — toward pain and hope, trauma and healing. It’s what brought stars like Andy Cohen, Anderson Cooper, Sarah Jessica Parker, Matthew Broderick and Lena Waithe to Broadway on Sunday — a chance to heal, to remember and grieve. Also in attendance for the premiere at the Barrymore Theater [...]

  • Touching the Void review

    West End Review: 'Touching the Void'

    It shouldn’t work. Attempting to make effective theatre out of scaling a mountain, facing disaster thousands of feet up in the freezing cold and enduring a drawn-out facedown with death is surely a preposterous idea. Yet that is exactly what playwright David Grieg and director Tom Morris and his ideally meshed creative team have done. [...]

  • Hangmen review play

    Martin McDonagh’s 'Hangmen' Coming to Broadway in 2020

    Martin McDonagh’s “Hangmen” will debut on Broadway this spring, the latest in a line of West End transfers to the Great White Way this year. The play, which focuses on the second-best executioner in Britain dealing with his government’s decision to abolish his favorite form of doing away with prisoners, will begin performances on Feb. [...]

  • The Inheritance review

    Broadway Review: 'The Inheritance'

    The real hero of “The Inheritance,” Matthew Lopez’s thoughtful, moving and painfully funny play, is E.M. Forster, the celebrated English author of “Howards End,” “A Room with a View,” “A Passage to India,” and “Maurice,” that last a gay-themed novel published after his death in 1970. It’s quite the literary thrill to find the great [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content