The Boy Detective Fails,” author Joe Meno’s quirky novel about life’s mysteries, makes a thought-provoking season-opener at Signature Theater, one of two new shows premiering in repertory at the facility with shared ensemble. Although it’s enhanced by Adam Gwon’s sturdy score, audiences might struggle to comprehend Meno’s disjointed and occasionally over-precious book.
On set designer Derek McLane’s otherwise empty stage, a small town is depicted by an assortment of miniature buildings that are occasionally moved about and even climbed into by cast members. But this isn’t Grover’s Corners, despite frequent reminders of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” There’s a miscreant lurking behind every tree, it seems, and the locals obsess in song and story about evildoers and the unknown.
Stephen Gregory Smith plays with disarming innocence the musical’s protagonist, Billy Argo, who as a young lad solved numerous local mysteries accompanied by his kid sister, Caroline, and their nerdy friend, Fenton. But that was before Caroline (Margot Seibert) committed suicide, and Billy spent a decade in a mental hospital trying to cope. Now he wants to find out why she did it.
As the plot-driven piece moves along under director Joe Calarco’s steady pace, an array of eccentric characters is introduced including free-spirited kleptomaniac and proverbial lost soul Penny Maple, refreshingly played by Anika Larsen. Smith and Larsen team up for some of Gwon’s most effective melodies, including “As Long as You Are Here” and “Little Mysteries.” Seibert’s vocals are also enjoyable, especially the early number, “Caroline.” Choreographer Karma Camp embellishes several ensemble numbers with lively dancing.
With its unconventional message and intriguing approach, “Boy Detective” has potential. But for starters, it needs to rein in its rambling storyline and lasso at least one annoying character, an evil professor who is severely overexposed.
Songs: “Prologue,” “Billy Argo, Boy Detective,” “Caroline,” “Old Friends,” “Mr. Mammoth’s Life-Like Mustache,” “What’s Your Problem, Billy Argo?/Haunted Toy Factory,” “Evil,” “Amazing,” “On the #1 Bus/The Chase,” “As Long as You Are Here,” “I Like (The Secret Song),” “After Secrets/Haunted,” “That’s All,” “No Such Thing,” “Little Mysteries,” “On the Bus #2,” “Let Me Save You,” “Finale”