By John Lyle Belden
To use the language of its era, “White City Murder,” by and starring Ben Asaykwee and Claire Wilcher, is a marvel and a spectacle, well worthy of your dime – well, many of them; it is 2016, after all.
But in a room of the Irvington Lodge, it’s 1893 in Chicago at the Worlds Fair, the setting for much of this musical drama by Q Artistry in which Asaykwee and Wilcher are more than 30 characters and, thanks to a keyboard and vocal loopers, the musical instruments as well.
The plot is familiar to readers of the bestselling book, “Devil in the White City” by Erik Larson (not cited as a source, but likely an influence on Asaykwee’s writing of the show). An impressive complex of buildings, known as the White City for its monochrome style, hosts the Fair while just a couple of miles away, a man known at the time as H.H. Holmes was running his hotel – popularly known as his “murder castle” for its various rooms designed for killing people and processing and disposing of their bodies. Aside from his psychopathy, Holmes killed for profit, selling skeletons to colleges and cashing in on insurance policies. This show delves into his past, and continues after the Fair closes to portray Holmes’ actions to stay ahead of Pinkerton detectives (investigating insurance fraud, not murder), ending not long after his brief stay in Irvington (just blocks away from where the musical is staged).
The story of the person regarded as America’s first serial killer (and one of the most prolific) is told in a fascinating, eccentric manner with old-time pizzazz, drawing a gasp one moment, nervous laughter the next. In the hands of these two master comic actors, it is a performance not to be missed.
And, if I must stop gushing and be a critic for a moment, that’s the show’s main flaw: It feels like a show only these two pros can do. As a musical that can be picked up, re-staged and performed by others – say, in Chicago or even off-Broadway – “White City Murder” has a lot of rough edges. Fortunately, Asaykwee is such a great showman and Wilcher an improv goddess that any goofs, flubs, lulls or moments of this-isn’t-quite-working are easily smoothed over – likely easily forgotten by most of the audience by the end. The musical interludes could use some work, and reliance on electronics does invite technical glitches. There is clever use of what look like large cardboard cutouts that stops for no reason and could be useful in more parts of the plot. I could nitpick further, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Asaykwee and Wilcher are already making tweaks for the show’s second weekend.
Still, as a sort of “beta test” of a show that’s good enough to perform but not quite perfected, this is an excellent first edition.
Remaining performances are Saturday (March 26), and Thursday through Saturday, March 31 to April 2, at 5515 E. Washington St., Indianapolis. See qartistry.org for tickets.
(Review also posted at The Word)