Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Cleveland & Akron

Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery
Cleveland Play House
Review by Review by David Ritchey

Also see Mark's review of Love from a Stranger

Rafael Untalan and Jacob James
Photo by Roger Mastroianni
A quality mystery holds the audience or the reader every time. What a pleasure to sit on a quiet winter night and read a mystery by Agatha Christie, Edgar Allen Poe, or Arthur Conan Doyle. The wind howls and a tree branch scratches on the window. Was that sound at the kitchen door or in the basement?

On the stage, a well-crafted mystery provokes the audience to gasp or scream or grab the arm of a complete stranger. Every heart in the auditorium skips a beat and then gallops as the mystery moves toward its terrifying climax.

That's what happens in Ken Ludwig's Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery. Sherlock Holmes and his friend Doctor Watson, classical though they may be, come to life on the stage of the Allen Theatre in the Cleveland Play House.

The playwright is the Ken Ludwig of mad comedy fame – Lend me a Tenor may be his most famous evening of madness.

In Baskerville, Ludwig considers the work of Doyle's The Hounds of the Baskerville, but he sets out a tough assignment for himself. He adapts the famous mystery to the stage, makes it a comedy, and cuts the cast list to five actors playing a large number of characters.

The five-person cast wears 55 costumes in the two-hour traffic on the stage. Some cast members are overdressed—wearing one costume on top of a second costume. This permits the actor and the dresser to remove one costume and the actor is ready to make another entrance in only a few seconds. Some costumes appear and reappear, meaning the actors change costumes quickly and bring back a character they played earlier. Lex Liang has done a superior job designing the complicated costumes for the cast. They are period authentic and obviously tear away to permit fast costume changes. The production has three dressers who help the actors change costumes, wigs, sideburns and hats in record time.

The quick costume changes set the action of the play. Everything happens at a brisk pace, in an effort to catch those who should be caught and to give freedom to those who should be free.

A murder most foul took place before the actors speak the first words on the stage. Was the killer a hound of the Baskerville Hall? Or was the killer a human who might have hoped to inherit the fortune tied to the Baskervilles? Rumor and legend maintain a supernatural creature prowls the grounds of the Baskerville mansion.

The playwright laces this story with funny lines and physical humor. He pulls the laces tight and helps the audience relax as murder and mayhem reign supreme onstage.

The performers are excellent, especially those who play multiple roles. But first, Rafael Untalan makes Sherlock Holmes as pompous as Holmes should be. Holmes always knows more, understands more, and unravels more than any character in fiction. Untalan tosses off his wisdom as if we're all fools for not understanding what he grasps in a moment of personal brilliance.

Joseph James creates a Doctor Watson anyone would want for a sidekick or wingman. James conducts part of the investigation on his own and, of course, attempts to imitate Holmes. James' role is not as full of stardust as Untalan's, but he carefully underplays the role and makes this Watson one of the best I've seen.

Physically, Brian Owen is large and pudgy—at his best running around the stage in a blond wig and swinging a net attempting to catch butterflies for his collection. Evan Alexander Smith is tall, and that makes him perfect to play a Texan who has arrived to, perhaps, claim the Baskerville inheritance. Smith looks as if he could have just stepped out of an early western movie. Owen and Smith play a variety of characters and prove their versatility with these outlandish roles.

Nisi Sturgis brings most of the female characters to the stage (yes, some of the men play female roles). She is excellent as the ingénue and plays the love interest of the cowboy as appropriately as Dale Evans could have played the role. Unfortunately, as the German frau, her dialect coach let her down, as her technically perfect accent is almost impossible to comprehend.

Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery is a satisfying show. Visually, set and costumes dazzle the eye. The actors breathe life into Ludwig's words and help the audience smile and laugh at the nonsense on the stage. The show will run through February 12, 2017.

Next on The Cleveland Play House's Allen Theatre stage will be Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive, running March 4 – 26, 2017.

For ticket Information for all Cleveland Play House shows call 216-241-6000 or visit

Playwright: Ken Ludwig
Doctor Watson: Jacob James
Sherlock Holmes: Rafael Untalan
Actor One: Brian Owen
Actor Two: Evan Alexander Smith
Actress One: Nisi Sturgis
Dressers: Candace Brown, Janel Moore, Christina Spencer
Costume Designer: Lex Liang
Scenic Designer: Timothy R. Mackabee
Lighting Designer: Peter Maradudin
Wig Design: Wigs and Whiskers
Dialect Coach Thom Jones
Fight Choreographer: Ron Wilson
Director: Brendon Fox.

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