A Glancing Blow: JACK THE RIPPER (THE WHITECHAPEL MUSICAL)

Presented by F.U.D.G.E Theatre Company
Music by Steven Bergman
Book and Lyrics by Steven Bergman & Christopher-Michael DiGrazia
Directed by Joey DeMita
Music Directed by Be Oehlkers
Stage Managed by Julie Murray

Boston Playwrights’ Theatre
Boston, MA
March 28th – April 12th, 2014
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Review by Craig Idlebrook

(Somerville) We can trace back modern detective-work and sensationalistic journalism to the grimy streets of London at the close of the 19th century. One summer, while an unknown serial killer was stalking prostitutes, the London police learned they had to up their forensics game, while the tabloids learned that sex and blood made a profitable mix.

When the story of Jack the Ripper is told, it is almost an origins story for modern society, akin to Book of Genesis, or at least X-Men: First Class. We come back to “Jack”, not because he is the most original villain or the most compelling mystery, but because he provides a roadmap of how we got to the 24-hour news cycle of Casey Anthony and Malaysia Flight MH370.

A staging of Jack the Ripper must either provide us with a frank and straightforward version of this original nightmare, or it must provide fresh insight to help us understand our thirst for gore. F.U.D.G.E Theatre’s version of the story, “Jack the Ripper (the Whitechapel Musical)”, unfortunately does neither, or rather it tries to do both, depending on the act.

Told completely in powerful song, like “Les Miserables” without the angst, “Jack” first seems to be providing a straightforward interpretation of the terror that grips London. There is much to like with this beginning, with powerful vocals, memorable songs, good pacing, earnest performances, and a gloomy gas-lit set. Between the disposableness of the poor victims and the sensational fear that overwhelms the policework, we begin to see the potential directions this tale can take.

But then the play shifts into neutral and loses momentum, and all its flaws are exposed. None of the characters are allowed to develop beyond the depth of set pieces at a wax museum, despite the impassioned performances of the strong cast; the catchy songs are repeated over and over again; and the script begins to tell instead of show. A detective’s tragic lost love is introduced of, defiled, and disposed of in one awkward pantomime scene, and the potential tension of a twisted Flowers in the Attic storyline is frittered away with nail-on-the-head song lyrics like “Now that we’re together/I feel such mixed emotions.”

Jack the Ripper embodies everything wrong with society since the Industrial Revolution, and it’s a damn scary story, to boot. But anyone approaching this tale needs to make the decision of whether to treat it as a haunted house story with rattling chains or a harrowing peek inside the underbelly of who we are as a society. Woe is the playwright who doesn’t commit.

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