Expect a slightly different version of Sherlock Holmes in the Alley Theatre’s Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily.
Written by actor-turned-playwright Katie Forgette, Jersey Lily mixes the usual Sherlock cast (Sherlock, Dr. Watson, and Professor Moriarty) with historical characters Oscar Wilde and Lillie Langtry.
Alley resident acting company member Todd Waite returns as Sherlock—his fifth turn at what has become his signature role.
“I just love the scope of this show,” says Waite. “Of the five Sherlock scripts that I’ve done, this is by far the best one.”
Here, the famously gay Oscar Wilde (played by Christopher Salazar) asks Sherlock to help his friend, actress Lillie Langtry (Krystel Lucas), who’s being blackmailed. Wilde also needs a little help from the master detective on his latest project, The Importance of Being Forthright.
In previous staged incarnations, Sherlock has been, at best, asexual and indifferent to women and, at worst, an outright misogynist. His relationship with Watson has frequently bordered on a full-blown bromance.
The addition of the foppish Oscar Wilde obviously inserts homosexuality into the story, allowing Waite to develop a more layered lead character. Although Forgette’s script doesn’t include any overt suggestion that the detective is gay, Waite and director Brandon Weinbrenner, both openly gay artists, each considered sexuality in building the Sherlock character.
“I have read and seen almost every Sherlock that’s out there,” says Waite. “Some writers think he’s asexual because he’s so focused on his work. I think that there’s an enormous life force in Sherlock, which includes sexuality. I sometimes wonder if part of his drug addiction is how he deals with [his sexuality].”
Waite points to a moment in the Jersey Lily script when Sherlock seems to connect romantically with a woman as he starts to kiss her hand, but then stops. “She says, ‘Could you ever?’ And Sherlock says, ‘Perhaps in another time.’
“At the same time, he’s friends with Oscar Wilde,” Waite continues. “I don’t know that this famous gay guy, Oscar Wilde, and Sherlock didn’t have some opioid-heroin-addicted, accidental tryst at some point. I kinda like to think that they did.
“To what degree is that sexual tension conscious or unconscious?” Waite muses. “I don’t want to play that on the surface consciously. I think that would rob Sherlock of the mystery of it, and I don’t think it would be Katie Forgett’s play, exactly. It will play out in terms of intensity, if not necessarily in overt action.”
Director Weinbrenner agrees, saying, “For me, it’s not really supported in the play, but at the same time, there’s room for Todd—for this Sherlock—to have that secret. People have attractions to other people that we don’t say out loud, that we don’t talk about. It’s possible; it’s just not played on.”
“I love the tension, the ambiguity!” laughs Waite.
The seven-person cast includes other Alley audience favorites that Weinbrenner is a big fan of. “They’re the best!” he says. “We have a resident acting company at the Alley because we’re so selfish that we want to keep all the best Houston actors in our building. I’m joking, of course, but not really.
“We all know how great Todd is as Sherlock. And there’s a juicy, villainous, and comedic part for Elizabeth Bunch,” he adds. “She has a wicked sense of humor, so this is pure candy for her to take on this role. I’m so excited to see her chew the scenery with her interpretation of Mrs. Irma Tory.
“With Christopher Salazar, I imagined him as Oscar Wilde when I first read the script. He’s great with comedy. And he delivers the lines with the witticisms of Oscar Wilde, so I think it’s going to be a really fun role for him.
“Brandon Hearnsberger has been no stranger to Alley audiences. If you saw Cowboy Bob, his latest role, you saw his range. He can sing, and he’s great with comedy. And I’m really ready to show the darker side of Brandon. He’s so likable that when he takes on a villain role, it disarms you. I think he’s going to have a lot of fun playing Moriarty.”
And, of course, the audience is invited to go along with the fun.
“Alley audiences have always been smart,” says Weinbrenner. “Some of my favorite memories of Alley audiences are from Summer Chills or Sherlock Holmes shows, hearing everyone during intermission talk about who they think did it, or what’s going to happen. I love listening to those conversations.”
For Waite, live theater in a post-COVID world is more important and more therapeutic than ever before. “To be in a dark theater and feel the energy, it makes for a unique connection.”
Weinbrenner agrees, adding, “Theater should be fun—whether it’s a cathartic release, or something that challenges your ideas and beliefs, or just escapism and a fun time. Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily has the capacity to be all of those. Everyone’s going to find something to connect to.”
Don’t miss the chance to join ActOut’s pre-show reception on Thursday, April 27. The event promises to be a night of fun and excitement as guests will get the opportunity to mingle with like-minded individuals and enjoy some light refreshments before the main show.
WHAT: Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily
WHEN: April 19–May 14, 2023; the ActOut pre-show reception is Thursday, April 27
WHERE: Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue
INFO: alleytheatre.org or 713-220-5700