From the moment the first note of music pierces the darkened hall, a chill slides up the backbone. As a wraith-like array of haggard, hollow-eyed, rag-wrapped denizens of the back alleys of late 19th century London come crawling up onto WaterTower Theatre’s stage through underground sewer grates and sidle and sway in out of the shadows and dark crannies of the multi-level Creep stage set, the audience finds itself captivated by a unique spectacle.
Dallas-based Donald Fowler dreamed of creating his musical Creep many years ago in Paris. WaterTower Theatre has served the work well in its premiere full mounting, closing this weekend on October 25. With musical direction by SMU professor Kevin Gunter (also on keyboards, piano) the nine-piece ensemble, which includes trombone, French horn and oboe, never rests, underscoring or driving the somber, interweaving plotlines with emotionally wracked twists and turns: some melodic and smooth, some garish and jarring, all relentless, always illuminating the moment’s mood. The twenty-one musical numbers require stamina, fluency and top-drawer technique from the cast of eighteen. Gunter and Philadelphia-based stage director Kate Galvin pulled together an able ensemble of some of the finest musical theatre talents in the region. Leads Christia Mantzke, Patty Breckenridge, Jonathan Bragg, Daniel Rowan and Sarah Elizabeth Smith all demonstrate virtuoso chops when doing the heavy lifting the music demands, but the heft and nuance of vocal work by the balance of the ensemble adds a legitimate operatic dimension without distracting with operatic-style voicing. As a chamber-style work of musical theatre, Creep is luscious and soaring.
Plot elements still need some refinement and clarification. Sometimes it’s hard to tell who functions as the show’s real protagonist, or who directs the audience’s point of view throughout. Ingénues Mary (Sarah Elizabeth Smith) and Anne (Alyssa Gardner) don’t reveal their relationship closeness in exposition, so it’s hard to grasp its impact on them as adult characters. A side plot of homoeroticism between male leads, seemingly promised then denied, does little to drive forward the viable main threads of social class repression and escape from deprivation. The show gives no hint of its final resolution, which then feels a tad contrived. Still, this is a fresh, new work of theatre. Some correctable plot confusion can be tolerated, when experiencing the delight it offers musically and visually. Set design by Jeff Schmidt, in conjunction with lighting design by Kevin Foster and costume design by Derek Whitener and Victor Newman Brockwell conspire elegantly to create a palpably terror-filled atmosphere. A Jack the Ripper could suddenly appear at any moment, from behind a disguise or banister or inside a secret closet, to enact the heinous evil that men can do. Watch with care, from the edge of your seat.