Going to the theatre is not typically something I ever do, but when the production involves metal, murder and new friends, my interest is definitely piqued. So it was with great excitement and anticipation that I waited in line outside the Autograph Playhouse (9 W. 25th St. Baltimore) for the opening night of “Murdercastle”, the fifth production by the Baltimore Rock Opera Society (BROS).
The musical, set in 1893 Chicago during the World’s Columbian Exposition, revolves around the true events of America’s first serial killer, H.H. Holmes. Unlike the BROS previous productions, which have included gods, demons and mythical beasts, “Murdercastle” had to create monsters from “regular” people dressed in nothing scarier than turn-of-the-century fashion.
Before the show, I read a little about Holmes, whose real name was Herman Webster Mudgett. Apparently Holmes built a block-long, castle-like hotel where he conducted his torture and murders. The structure was filled with twisting hallways, secret rooms, and doors that locked from the outside. I recommend that you at least brief yourself on who Holmes is before you go, as it will help with following the play.
Also before the show, I had the chance to pose a few questions to the show’s music director John DeCampos and artistic director and writer Jared Margulies.
(Note: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS NO SPOILERS! Seriously, why would I do that to you?)
Tell me a little about this new production and the actors featured in it?
“This is BROS darkest and most challenging show to date, we are pulling no punches and musically and dramatically are going to blow everyone’s fucking face off! This mind melting experience will be masterfully acted by Derek Brown (H.H. Holmes), Moira Horowitz (Annie Millbrook), Chris Krsyztofiak (Benjamin Pitezel), Sarah Gorman (Mrs. Pitezel) and an insanely talented ensemble cast of about 40 people,” said DeCampos.
Indeed, now that I have seen the show, the cast is insanely talented at singing, dancing and acting. This is no lo-fi community theatre production of “Grease.” BROS have created what they have termed “murder metal” and staged it in the most epic, over-the-top way they could possibly engineer and afford.
This was my first experience with a BROS production, but I doubt it will be my last. I don’t think I have attended a musical production that not only satisfied my musical taste but also caused me to have such a strong visceral reaction to the content of the storyline. There were times during the show when I wanted to scream out, “Nooooo, don’t go in that room!” but usually someone else in the audience would beat me to it. My eyes began to tear up during several of the solos, such as when Horowitz as Millbrook sings the refrain, “I must forge ahead, trace the missing thread, use the strength I have, listen when I swear I will find you!”
If you miss “Murdercastle,” you are definitely missing out on the some of the best original musical theatre that Baltimore, or any region, has to offer. The first several shows have already sold out, so if you plan to go, don’t wait to buy your ticket. A few logistical hints: the theatre gets a little steamy so dress for hot weather. There are no bad seats in the theater, but if you want to sit closer, get there at least an hour before the show, or pony up a few extra dollars for a VIP seat up front.
How did you come across the Holmes story, and what about it inspired you to create “Murdercastle”?
“After we had wrapped our second run of our first production “Grundlehammer,” I started thinking about some of the darker and more adult content that was removed from the show for the sake of making it more family friendly or politically correct, and I wanted to do something that was brutal and dark and engaging,” said DeCampos. “Being a horror buff and someone who has been fascinated with serial killers in general my brain immediately went to ‘ok, a metal rock opera about a serial killer would be awesome,’ but in thinking about that I realized that a rock opera about a modern serial killer would very, very difficult.”
DeCampos concluded that it would be impossible to get an audience to sympathize with modern-day monsters such as John Gacy or Ted Bundy. It was just too soon for them. So he went a little further back into history.
“Eventually, I came across a wiki article about H.H. Holmes. The first thing that struck me was that I, a fairly knowledgeable person on the subject of serial killers, had never heard of him. Moreover the details of his crimes seem custom tailored to the format of a staged rock opera. The backdrop of Chicago in 1893 during the Worlds Colombian Exposition, his maze-like hotel with the death traps, his opportunistic and enterprising approach to murder, the fact that he was America’s first serial killer only preceded by (the UK’s) Jack the Ripper and that his career and life were unlike that of any other serial killer, all these things made his story a perfect fit,” DeCampos said.
After seeing “Murdercastle,” I must admit that at no point during the performance did I ever feel sympathy for Holmes. I knew what was coming. I just didn’t know exactly how BROS was going to accomplish it.
What challenges did you face bringing the Holmes story to life?
“First and foremost getting the BROS to agree to produce this show. Because just in merit of the scope, feel and darkness of this show BROS knew as an organization that this would be our most risky and involved show to date. Once we got on the Murdertrain and began production (two years after our initial pitch) it has pretty much been challenge after challenge all of which the BROS army has handled with great results,” DeCampos said.
“From a creative perspective the complexity of the show is beyond anything BROS has done before, and given the nature of the themes in the show the story line is a challenging one for us. Just the logistical nightmare of working with over 40 actors and 13 musicians has been a real task,” added Margulies.
Visually, “Murdercastle” is stunning. The costumes, although I am no historian, seem spot on. Even while waiting in line, we were greeted by period dressed players. The lobby of the Autograph Playhouse also has been given a 19th century makeover.
The fantastic transforming stage speaks to the hours of design and engineering that went into creating it. Drugstore countertops flip to become staircases, which flip to become dissection tables. I must also mention the extremely clever use of assistant stage manager Jack Sossman, who, with his death gaze, subtle gestures and constant malevolent presence in nearly every scene, was both logistically functional and emotionally disturbing.
Death is ever-present, represented by a skeleton-theme that weaves throughout from beginning to end in the subtlest, as well as in the most spectacular ways. And there is murder, plenty of it. Stabbing, head bashing, disembowelment and disfigurement abound, but don’t worry. It’s not like a GWAR concert.
“There are no blood splatters, this is not a gore fest, though you may feel like your heart splatters at the end,” Margulies said.
Musically, the score of “Murdercastle” runs the gamut from power metal to prog-rock to death metal and even some atmospheric and noiser black metal, which underpin the creepier scenes. I would say most of the singing remains solidly within the power metal or rock realm, but Brown dips into death metal growls at the appropriate times. Notably Madame Opticon (Kay-Megan Washington) soars skillfully into spine-chilling operatic tones during her number.
What else should we know about the music?
“This is our largest band to date for a BROS production. We have the Metal corps–three guitars, bass and drums. A pianist who also plays glockenspiel and does back up vocals alongside another back up vocalist also playing glockenspiel in a few spots,” DeCampos said. “Then there is a cello, two violins, two saxophones and a trombone. That being said, this was one of the more challenging scores I think we have ever done. We set out to do a metal rock opera, but it had to exist in the time period of 1890’s so what did we do? Waltz time about half the score and then got nuts on the rest. Styles are kind of all over the place. We have your standard fare, one big show number one ballad and some string heavy transitional pieces. The rest is all metal. Overall I would classify it as prog metal but there are shades of power, speed, tech, and death. We have a handful of breakdowns that get pretty heavy and just recently, we began applying our skills to making some really mental noise for some of the more abstract parts of the play.”
Now that I have seen and heard the production, I would also add that unless you are sitting in the front row or your ears are particularly sensitive, you will not need earplugs for this show. The sound in the Autograph Playhouse is pretty clear no matter where you are sitting.
Would I recognize any of the musicians or singers from local bands?
“Yes, all the music is performed live and yes you might recognize many of the band members from other bands. Myself, Chris Baines, Tyler Merchant, and Jonathan Smeltzer were all in a Video Game metal Tribute band called Entertainment System, and all of us, sans Tyler, currently play in a synth based Video game band called Rare Candy,” DeCampos said. “Jon and I were also in short-lived and under-gigged metal band called the Survivors of Camp Crystal Lake. Erica Patoka our pianist has done burlesque for Gilded Lily and recently did a jazz/lounge act at the Creative Alliance. Lauren Anderson, the other back up vocalist, was in Gun Wife Gone and Dead White Kids. Zack Branch does some experimental jazz with a group/event he does called Talk Show, and Ruby Fulton (violinist) was recently featured in Urbanite and currently plays in Rhymes With Opera. Dan Benbow is playing sax in Community Center as well as newish metal band Snakefeast.”
What lies ahead for BROS?
“You can expect to keep seeing more of us! We plan to begin touring our first original production, “Grundlehammer,” late this year or early next year in the Mid-Atlantic Region. We want to spread the gospel of rock to the hinterlands,” said Margulies.
“We are currently working on our HQ also known as BROME which is at about 65 percent completion,” added DeCampos. “After that we will be gearing up for our next show, “Electric Pharaoh,” which is the new show from Chuck Green, who was the writer and director of the space camp comedy we did, ‘The Terrible Secret of Lunastus,’” said DeCampos.
BROS is an all-volunteer organization. To get involved go to www.baltimorerockopera.org.