Book, Music & Lyrics by Donald Fowler
Director – Kate Galvin
Music Director – Kevin Gunter
Orchestrator – Dan Kazemi
Choreographer – Kelly McCain
Fight Choreographer – Jeff Colangelo
Set Designer – Jeff Schmidt
Costume Designer – Derek Whitener / Victor Newman Brockwell
Lighting Designer – Jason Foster
Sound Designer – Curtis Craig
Assistant Sound Designer/Sound Mixer - Kellen Voss
Properties Designer – Tish Mussey
Copyist/Transcriber – Adam C. Wright
Dialect Coach – Sara Lovett
Dramaturg – Kyle Eric Bradford
Stage Manager – Caron Gitelman Grant
Assistant Stage Manager – Stefany Cambra
Kevin Gunter – Keyboards
Katrina Kratzer – Violin
Nate Collins – Percussion
Sara Bollinger – Bass
Jordan Cleaver – Cello
Eric Andress – Trombones
Megan DeRubeis – French horn
Kristen Thompson – Clarinets/Flute/Piccolo
Kasey Kessler – Viola
William Sprinkle – Oboe/English Horn
Sarah Elizabeth Smith – Mary
Christia Mantzke – Mother
Jonathan Bragg – Jackson
Daniel Rowan – Christian
Patty Breckenridge – Polly
Alyssa Gardner – Anne
Abby Chapman – Young Mary
Ensemble – Stephen Bates, Lillian Andrea De Leon, Raul Escalona, Alex Heika, Linda Leonard, Janelle Lutz, Kyle Montgomery, Calvin Scott Roberts, Kathryn Taylor Rose, Molly Welch, Seth Womack
Photos by Karen Almond
Reviewed Performance: 10/5/2015
Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
What most people know about Jack is that eleven people, mostly prostitutes, in Britain’s East End were mysteriously murdered and no one was ever identified. Five are linked directly to the mythological killer, though others could have been copycat murders. Investigations into Jack’s blood thirsty reign of terror and murder are rampant even to this day.
Creep (the very, very sad but unfortunately true and completely fabricated tale of Jack the Ripper), as it was once known, is a new musical that explores this subject by local playwright, Donald Fowler, including book, music and lyrics. And the story of making Creep has developed into a story of its own. Why a musical? As we’ve seen from other stories (e.g. Sweeny Todd, Jekyll and Hyde or Thrill me), songs allow for a deep exploration of inner motivations that drive someone to crime. It’s a modern form of a soliloquy.
Creep originally played as an Out-of-the-Loop Festival entry in 2010 and was then work shopped at Uptown in 2013, but the full musical opened its World Premiere at Water Tower Theatre in Addison Monday evening. And when I say full musical, I mean it’s taken on 18-actors, a 10-member orchestra, 21 songs, and a 2-act story that explores these characters in depth.
Water Tower Theatre may be a perfect venue for this production. Designers took full advantage of its very deep stage floor and very high ceiling to create stunning visual effects, from spotlights cutting beams through a fog, to 30-foot tall draperies and numerous wooden set pieces to create levels.
Jeff Schmidt designed an amazing set that grabbed the eyes the moment you entered and created a bit of angst about the story from the start. As a new story and treatment of this old subject, the audience had no guidelines to follow, so the setting was critical in building the right tone. A very tall wall was the backdrop of London, but it was more like a prison wall. Foreboding was evident. Very long, almost blood red draperies hung down on one side of the wall, while the rest housed a recessed stage area with platforms and stairways made of dingy woods that made it look like a dockside. Above and to the side were windows, balconies and recesses colored by broiling stormy blue light. Two grates in the large empty floor in front of the main platform provided lighted doorways to the sewers below and smoke leaked from these along with white lighting. Action was performed up and down the platforms and stairways, in the recessed balconies, across the floor and throughout the audience aisles.
Jason Foster lit this stage with effects that enhanced the fabrics and wall colors, and added fixed and moving spotlights from high above the audience to create beams of light through the dark space. One may have represented the voice of a hoped-for God. Colors were subtle, not typical reds and blues. Whites were a bit yellow, so that even in bright sunlight, it was a bit dim and eerie. Tish Mussey provided a rash of props, from planters to newsprint about the murders to knives and shawls so that there was always interesting visual clues in the scene to help place the story line and feed the actors with business.
Modern musicals seem to create sets that become iconic images, such as the barricade in Les Misérables or the helicopter in Miss Saigon. In Creep, the set reveals itself from the beginning, but it had a similar gravitas for this story. Though it was impressionistic, this set was London in 1888.
Curtis Craig designed the sound track for Creep, though music came from a hidden orchestra. Kellen Voss mixed the sound to resemble almost like a live rock concert show. Sound effects included a pre-show announcement recorded as if announcements were being made to the people of Whitechapel. During the show, there were unidentifiable sounds that gave audible life to the setting with sounds of the street. Combined with music and lighting, this created a cacophony of atmosphere that screamed danger! Actors wore head mics, which were well-balanced between singing and orchestra. With exception of one duet song and some dialog that was interrupted by a mic problem, the overall sound design was perfect where I sat and songs were easy to hear and understand.
Costumes were an absolute joy to behold in Creep. Co-designers Derek Whitener and Victor Newman Brockwell spared no expense or energy in creating character costumes that looked like they were lifted out of a Charles Dickens novel or an exceptional production of Scrooge. Many of them had a style similar to Steampunk with intricate constructions of numerous different fabric styles. Each woman’s costume was a lavish collection of textures and colors, full-length Victorian dresses with accoutrements layered to create subtle sub-texts for the characters. Deep red, lavender and blue silks were offset by blacks and whites and some browns and tans. As some women played prostitutes, as well as respectable ladies, the costumes allowed for flexible clues into the character each actor was creating. Men wore long waist-coat suits, leathers or calf-length pantaloons, depending on the class of the character. The main male characters were dressed in lavish suits themselves and one wore a thick coat topped with heavy fur. Women had all manner of hats to offset some of the wildest hair coloring and styles I’ve seen. Every actor could have been placed in a window of a Victorian fashion museum.
Creep had some dance and large group movement, as well as fights and murders that showed the life in Whitechapel and this looked like a big collaboration to me. Kelly McCain as Choreographer and Jeff Colangelo as Fight Choreographer, together with Director Kate Galvin and author Donald Fowler created a sense of movement for the story that was hard to identify to any one style or designer. Fights and murder scenes looked like dances. Dances looked like crowds of people moving through the space to music. There was one dance that looked like a Jewish or Gypsy wedding dance. Even purposeful actor blocking had a quality of dance and style that created a constant sense of movement towards inevitability.
Music for Creep was written by Donald Fowler who created the ideas, concepts and vision for this story over a 10-year period in bits and drabs. But he needed help to turn it into playable, theater music. With the help of Orchestrator Dan Kazemi and Musical Director Kevin Gunter, these 21 songs evolved into lush, big orchestrations for the 10-piece orchestra. This music filled the theater with expansive musical themes that echoed the scale of the era and story. Gunter melded this musical background with many layers of harmonies for the cast to sing, almost as if voices were additional instruments in the orchestra. Fowler’s songs ran the gamut from hopeful love songs to painful, self-reflecting ballads to blood-soaked street music. Lyrically the songs told pieces of the story and explored inner thoughts of characters so seamlessly that it sometimes seemed song and dialog mixed.
Some songs had long passages of dissonant harmonies that seldom resolved, so it was uncomfortable to the ear at times, a cacophony of noise that paralleled what was happening in the streets of London and inside the minds of characters. Lyrics in songs like “Sticks and Stones” and “Dear Boss” displayed strident voices that warned about the dangers of living and questioned the motives of everyone. They were the voices we hear in our heads after a mass murder. But these songs were also framed with ballads of deep beauty, with lyrics, melodies, duets and harmonies that opened the heart and revealed the turmoil of these characters. The haunting “Mothers and Daughters” and “Mother’s Arms” dove into the abject fear mothers felt about their daughters growing up in a dangerous world, haunting because it’s not so different today. What we heard in this music was that everyone was conflicted about living conditions and social unrest, maybe to the point of murder.
Kevin Gunter as Music Director also turned the ensemble cast into an on-stage vocal orchestra with complex harmonic songs in a fast-paced delivery. When this ensemble blended on songs from the opening number, “What We’d Have You Consider” to the ending, “The Remembering,” the feelings from these exceptionally gifted singers washed over the audience like a wave. Duets and solos, along with a few small groups, had a similar effect in the preciseness of tone and sincerity of delivery.
The 11-member ensemble played many functions in Creep. Besides voicing the unstated thoughts about violence from the streets, they also served as a Greek Chorus, introducing basic themes with a short title for each scene. They played unnamed drop-in characters to help or hinder the main characters and small crowds of townsfolk assisted with murders. One notable character was the policeman who investigated the Ripper murders, played, I think (no credits available), by Calvin Scott Roberts. There were always unnamed people appearing in nooks and crannies around the set, a constant reminder that danger was around every corner and even amongst us. It’s some wonder the Ripper was able to kill and disappear, but we could see and feel how easy it must have been to blend back into the teeming masses. It is the unseen enemy that scares us and the ensemble helped us connect with that fear.
Kate Galvin directed Creep and turned Donald Fowler’s inspired vision into a coherent stage presentation for a big stage. She was an inspired acquisition, having been involved with shows like Sweeney Todd, Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, and Lizzie. She also had experience at the messy task of co-creating a new musical, Ostentatious, so collaboration seems a strong suit for her. Aside from giving vision to designers who created visually arresting settings, she created stage pictures with the actors who focused attention on important dialogs or songs in the midst of chaos. In Water Tower’s thrust arrangement the characters came from, spoke to and acted in all directions, so maintaining focus took the talents of a world-class director. And, of course, she directed actors in their line delivery and character choices. This was exceptional. In every case, each actor was fully engaged and committed to the story and their character’s truth. In dialog, we saw characters reveal the conflicts about their life choices and circumstances, dealing with inner demons, and desperately trying to survive in a dog-eat-dog world. It seems Galvin took the grand vision, a set of talented and experienced artists, and gave them a spine that enabled a full exploration of this subject.
Creep opens with the image of a child in a pile of leaves. She was Young Mary who opens with a scream and anguish over something horrid. Her terror was palpable. Abby Chapman played Young Mary. The 6th grader has great experience in acting on large stages for such a young actor and it showed here. Though we saw her at sporadic times throughout the show, each time was a pivotal moment and she played it big. She opened Act 2 with a solo of London Bridge, interspersed with the ensemble singing a different song, running in and out through their legs. It was a typical child song, but with a mature quality that revealed something hidden about her and the story.
Mary grows up and was played as an adult by Sarah Elizabeth Smith. With good mothering, Mary has turned into a proper young lady of London. Impeccably dressed and adorned, Smith showed the normal side of Mary, the malleable young girl interested in friends, music, and innocent love. She has clearly forgotten that scary event in her childhood. Mary’s relationship with the Doctor (remember? prime suspect as Jack the Ripper?) becomes a conflict as her mother strongly disapproves. Smith plays this part of Mary first with innocence and then rebellion, until Mary understands a mysterious connection to the doctor and her mother. This conflict opens up things in Mary’s life that may hide her own motivations, which she may not even know about. Smith’s strong soprano voice gave her an ingénue quality that made her stand out among the various solos and duets with mostly lower-key singers and these songs showed Mary’s turmoil over the way of her world. Her duet with the Doctor showed how a love grows between illogically paired people. Smith gave Mary importance through her portrayal of innocence in a violent world.
Mary’s mother is called Mother. Christia Mantzke played Mother as a former woman of the streets who fits into normal society, owing to income we don’t learn about until later. Mantzke created Mother as a character who once had overtly amorous towards gentlemen, scornful towards prostitutes, and intensely protective of her daughter. Mantzke takes us on a journey through these extremes with a forceful and deeply emotional performance. Her unsubtle seduction of Mary’s young music teacher was funny, since, unlike Mother, we could see he was interested in the Doctor. In her solo, “Sticks and Stones,” we got to hear Mantzke’s ballsy voice cut loose after she’s embarrassed by backstabbing friends in a hat shop. Her mother/daughter duets and dialog with Smith’s Mary were sensitive, showing an ability to convey love as well as pain. Later she portrayed absolute determination as Mother takes on the Doctor to save Mary, and this revealed a delicious possibility for who the Ripper could be. Mantzke is in on many songs in the show and her powerful voice and intense stare lends a sense of strong intention to each.
Perhaps an arch-enemy of Mother is Polly, as in Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols. This character may have been part of the genesis of Creep, certainly one of the first songs to come out of Fowler’s inspiration. Patty Breckenridge turned Polly into a hardened whore who’s emboldened by the street life in Whitechapel. Apparently former friends with Mother, Polly has a daughter, Anne, who like Mary is growing up in the streets. Polly is proud of her profession, though cynical and jaded, but she wants her daughter to enter her rightful place in the trade and battles Mother and Mary for their high society lifestyle. Breckenridge took this woman and made her funny, sad and despicable all at once. In Polly’s treatment of her innocent daughter, Breckenridge created a woman we often hate, the mother who abuses her child. This comparison in mothering exploded in a duet with Breckenridge and Mantzke in what could become an iconic song, “Mothers and Daughters.” These two strong singers dealt with the challenges of trying to do the right thing and, each in their own way, showed they loved their daughters. Breckenridge then used one of my favorite songs to declare Polly’s view of life in Whitechapel in “Old Habits.” This song was deliciously wicked and hilarious as Breckenridge strutted around the stage punching the buttons of everyone in Polly’s life, but almost imperceptibly carried a sad quality that said she felt beaten down by her choices. Her style with this song reminded me of Les Misérables’s Madame Thenardier, though much more earthy. Her duet with Smith as Mary after a murder revealed a depth of sorrow and an apparent realization that her choices have consequences. In a stroke of staging genius, Polly talks to God through song as Breckenridge sang up through a piercing beam of light. She created a full life for a complex, conflicted, anguished woman.
Alyssa Gardner played Anne. Anne has to make a terrible choice about her mother’s work. Is that her destiny? This decision relates to Ripper because, beyond any moral issues, it’s a life and death choice. Gardner played the unkempt, yet pretty Anne as an anxious bird on a wire, being pulled to the good side by her childhood friend Mary and to the bad side by her mother. Gardner created this level of fear about her choice as if Anne knows the consequences, but resents Mary for her good fortune and feels the pain of inevitability. In the way Gardner walked, bent slightly as if Anne feels a heavy weight, and in how she wavered in describing Anne’s choices to Mary, we saw that Anne was a victim, incapable of anything violent herself, but incapable of swimming against the tide. But Anne’s story countered Mary’s and Gardner gave us the tools to see that.
Jonathan Bragg played Jackson, a wealthy London doctor, with an intense view of the world. Jackson walks both sides of the gender choice, as he is Christian’s “patron” and also loves Mary. Bragg showed Jackson’s conflict with this in his dialog with Mary and songs with Christian, as the doctor spurns the young man but reminds him of his power over his life. But when Mary arrived, the doctor becomes love-struck. Bragg’s baritone put real meat into his songs. His duet with Smith’s Mary showed a depth of love in Jackson that made him human, but inner conflicts must build, especially as the doctor is suspected of the Whitechapel murders, and Bragg dives into Jackson’s inner life with internal emotional despair, while wearing a hard exterior shell. Jackson’s interaction with Mother late in the show reveals how low he has fallen and what he may be capable of when pushed and Bragg pushed his character to his depths.
Christian was played by Daniel Rowan. As Mary’s music teacher, the object of Mother’s seduction, and a plaything of Jackson, Christian could be a candidate to strike out against defenseless women to resolve his issues. Yet, in many ways, Christian seems the most innocent. Rowan played this innocence as he showed Christian’s dependence and affection for Jackson and discomfort in Mother’s approaches. When Jackson declares love for Mary, Rowan turned Christian into a jilted lover. His tenor voice countered Bragg’s baritone and together they created memorable harmonic moments that showed Christian’s conflict over being gay in a world where that was a death sentence. Some of the highest notes in his songs really stretched his range as they were also the loudest, but he came across as powerful in spite of these.
Creep was a breathtaking display of artists pushing their talents to the limits to create a brand new big house musical. Designs were expansive in their assault on the senses, and largely well-executed. Directors created a production that enabled every actor to play and sing for their best characterizations. The musicologists gave us an experience through orchestral and vocal excellence. And actors played the story with passion, truth and commitment. The overall story was interesting and surprising and offered a glimpse into the motivations of everyone in Whitechapel who might commit horrible atrocities. Finally Kate Galvin unified this production team behind Donald Fowler’s vision and we were treated to a true first, a brand new musical.
So I had to question my own motivation as I left the theater thinking, that was incredibly good, but I’m not sure I care much about the outcome. That’s unusual for me. Why was that?
The theme of Creep is the question of Everyman. As Dramaturg Kyle Eric Bradford wrote in the fabulous play guide in the lobby, “With this readily visible violence inherent in humanity, we as a society need to find a way to mediate those two opposing forces within us: the civilized modern man and the animalistic savage.” That’s truer today as we watch violence surround us. The question of Jack the Ripper is more basic than who did it. As Mick Jagger said in Sympathy for the Devil, “Who killed the Kennedys? When after all it was you and me.” Every major character in Creep was flawed and could have been the Ripper, or committed other violence to relieve their turmoil. In the end, there’s no answer, only questions, most pointing back to us. I like that as a theme, but it meant that there was no clear hero or anti-hero. No one was fatally evil; all had goodness. And there’s the rub. It seems that musicals thrive on having someone to root for and against. Can we feel a deep connection with a musical, as most of us do with Les Misérables or Phantom or Wicked, if we can’t feel a strong connection with a character?
I liked Creep. I think it’s a fantastic production and believe it can translate to a bigger stage. I would see it again and take others, because I want to share the experience of this story with this group of people. But I don’t have that jaw-dropping awe I had when I first saw those other musicals. I just don’t know if that’s something that can be changed, or if it should be. But I do recommend that everyone see Creep at Water Tower this month. It could very well might soon become a hot ticket on Broadway.
Water Tower Theatre
Addison Theatre and Conference Centre, 15650 Addison Road, Addison, TX 75001 Mature subject matter.
Plays through October 25th.
Wednesday -Thursday at 7:30pm, Friday-Saturday at 8:00pm, and Sunday at 2:00pm. Additional performances on Saturday, October 17 and 24 at 2:00pm.Ticket prices range from $22.00 - $40.00 For info and to purchase tickets, visit www.watertowertheatre.org or call the box office at 972-450-6232.