It puts the spectacular in spectacle. That's one compliment I can give Something Wicked This Way Comes, now in its world premiere at Delaware Theatre Company in Wilmington.
And as spectacle, this new musical rivals the computer-generated imagery of the famed remount of Sunday in the Park with George that appeared on Broadway in the early 2000s. Brian Hill based his book on the same-titled novel by Ray Bradbury, the tale of a small town in Illinois visited by a mysterious carnival in 1938.
One by one, the townsfolk disappear, seduced by the charismatic Mr. Dark (Rob Riddle). Only two 13-year-old boys, Will Halloway (John Francis Babbo) and Jim Nightshade (Sawyer Nunes), recognize the deception. They enlist Will's estranged father, Charles (Broadway veteran Stephen Bogardus), to intervene and battle Dark's legion of carnival characters.
It sounds comic-bookish, and with Bradbury's sci-fi background, rightly and adventurously so. Freckled Sky's and Shawn Sagady's dazzling design electrifies the stage, with swarms of leaves and bats, a fireball-shooting villainess (Meghan Murphy's stunning vocals as the Dust Witch), and a maze of mirrors that distort desires. These contributions elevated Neil Bartram's ordinary score and lyrics into a production that captivates.
I can only blame Bartram for his lackluster sound and verses, which yielded just three memorable numbers in a two-hour show (two sang with great elan by Riddle). An entire song transformed Depression-era angst into its own form of malaise (as if an unintentional meta-commentary); another number lent additional boredom to Charles Halloway's already boring librarian life.
Rachel Rockwell's direction took an ominous yet slightly humorous tone from the start. Hill's book teems with sloppy and obvious devices (to the point of cliche), including a vagabond narrator (Steve Pacek) preempting for us the obvious songs that require no explanation. Pacek amuses in this role, enlivening his jokes with a droll, almost Beckettian delivery.
But I can't get behind the action. Riddle would have awed in any of the evening's roles, but as Mr. Dark, his charisma and presence catapults the conflict to epic proportions. His foil Halloway, though? Theresa Ham dressed the townsfolk with a grimy, Victorian-infused splendor, as if designed by a Depression-era Tim Burton.
Yet Bogardus bumbles around in a cardigan, Captain Dad-bod to Riddle's towering villain. An aging Harrison Ford or Bruce Willis or Sylvester Stallone he is not, at once uninspiring and unbelievable.