WEST VALLEY — The recent crispness in the air sets an appropriate tone for the opening of Sleepy Hollow, the current musical at West Valley Arts. Walking into the theatre, patrons are greeted with a stage eerily lit and alive with long tree-like shadows, while night sounds (with occasional foreboding hoofbeats) are piped through the speakers. Based on Washington Irving’s short story, the stage musical with book and lyrics by Jim Christian and music by Tom Edward Clark is a significant expansion on the original short story. Christian, a local favorite and retired faculty from Weber State University, also directs and choreographs the production. In his director’s notes, Christian describes his lifelong enchantment with the tale and the development and realization of his dream to bring it to the stage as a musical. Christian and Clark were awarded the National Musical Theatre Playwriting Award from the Kennedy Center after Weber State’s 2009 premiere of Sleepy Hollow was selected to showcase at the American College Theatre Festival.
The cozy theatre in the round space at West Valley Arts presents challenges and opportunities for staging a large musical, and Christian’s direction and choreography uses the space well. Most of the scenes are very well balanced with creative movement that allows patrons a good view, regardless of their seat. There are several stand out moments of movement and choreography, such as the schoolhouse scene and the Halloween dance. But the headless horseman chase is particularly notable for its creativity and potential. Although the chase scene is intentionally low lit to create mystery and dramatic tension, it would benefit from a bit more light and a bit less fog (and a bit more practice) to be fully realized.
I grew up with the dopey but likeable character of Ichabod Crane in the Disney movie version of Sleepy Hollow. Although he is tall and lanky like Irving’s original Ichabod, Ricky Parkinson’s portrayal of the character at West Valley Arts is anything but loveable, and it took some mental adjustment for me to Ichabod as the villain in Christian’s script. Irving’s original story does describe Ichabod as embracing the phrase “spare the rod and spoil the child,” and it is clear from Ichabod’s first song in the musical, “Never Spare the Rod” that Christian’s adaptation leans heavily into this aspect of Ichabod’s character. To his credit, Parkinson fully embraces the role of the villain, almost to the point of caricature, lending an entertaining air of melodrama to the whole production. While fun, this unfortunately renders Ichabod as a rather one-dimensional and unlikeable figure, whereas had Ichabod been imbued with even minor redeeming qualities, some of the other moments (like when Katrina considers marrying him) would have been more convincing.
Clark’s music is a mash up of several styles, with clever overlapping rhythms and lyrics in several songs such as “Upon…” just before intermission. The cast generally has strong vocals with stand outs in Jordan LeBaron’s Brom, Parkinson’s Ichabod, and Emma Roberts’s Katrina. The younger children in the cast, especially Soren Ray as Willem, performed the challenging vocals notably well. The show would definitely benefit from a live orchestra. Not only because so much of the sweeping musical numbers would just sound better with a full orchestra, but also because performing with a track tends to leave gaping holes as actors wait for music cues to start. There is definitely still some room for tightening up musical transitions, which will hopefully improve as the run progresses.
Overall, the production boasts some strong technical elements, including well-rehearsed, swift scene changes. Though some of the sound balance was problematic opening night, resulting in some earsplitting vocals in the louder songs, such as the church choir number. The cast sports several well designed and executed wigs by Savanna Finley, as well as lovely and lush costuming by Kelsey Nichols. Of particular note are the creative horse costumes which, together with stylized equine movement, creates a captivating theatrical convention.
The script itself is clever and engaging and will satisfy audience member’s need for mystery. There is a Scooby-Doo-esque reveal at the end of the show, but nothing that a bit of willing suspension of disbelief cannot overcome. It is also a long production, clocking in at about 2.5 hours. For the most part, though, the production does not drag, and the plot twists keep it interesting. The only notable times when show feels a bit too long is in the second act; songs like “Vanished” could have been cut entirely without much impact. Additionally, “Make It Mine,”, though key to the plot, was long enough and odd enough in content to border on the comical.
All in all, Sleepy Hollow is a thoroughly enjoyable evening. The music is good, the script is clever, and the cast is strong. West Valley Arts produces consistently solid programming that showcases the talents of local artists and is an excellent community arts organization worth supporting. All in all, Sleepy Hollow is a fun way to welcome in the spooky season.