An unwieldy tale from Lemony Snicket

The puppets are amazing. So are the sets. And any show starring perennial funnyman Geoff Hoyle comes guaranteed to make you laugh.

So why is it so hard to love “Lemony Snicket’s The Composer is Dead”?

With its unusual combination of theater, music, puppets and film, Snicket’s play, which opened last week at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, has a winning concept: a backstage whodunit about a murdered composer, a bumbling inspector and an orchestra filled with suspects.

In the execution, though (pardon the pun), the new production feels pretty flimsy.

Originally conceived by Snicket (also known as author Daniel Handler) and composer Nathaniel Stookey as a child’s introduction to classical music — something along the lines of Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” or Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” — the piece was first performed by the San Francisco Symphony a few seasons back. It’s been substantially reconfigured at Berkeley Rep.

Directed by Tony Taccone, it’s actually two stories. The first, “The Magic of Living, Breathing Theater,” is a backstage peek at life in the theater on film.

Hoyle, as a smarmy host in a tux and bad toupee, takes the audience on a careening tour down hallways and into dressing rooms, where “everything is going wrong” — the director is crying, the actor can’t speak, the stage manager is distracted. This episode, which combines Hoyle’s live performance with film of the puppets, gets the show off to a giddy start.

Then the curtain goes up on a Victorian theater, with the title character slumped over a writing desk and members of the orchestra — all puppets — in the pit. Hoyle, sporting loud plaid and a beaky nose, interrogates each section: the egotistical violins, overworked percussion, and so on. Despite a series of enchanting set changes, this is where the production runs out of steam — right up to its sudden, unsatisfying ending.

Hoyle is wonderful in both roles, and the puppets, designed and handled by Phantom Limb, are fascinating. Snicket’s writing is droll, although Stookey’s score — played from a San Francisco Symphony recording — is underused.

Yet, even at a compact 65 minutes — there’s another brief film at the end to wrap things up — the production seems as padded as a puppet’s stuffed shirt.

When a show this short feels too long, something’s not right. “The Composer is Dead” needs more life.

Theater Review

Lemony Snicket’s The Composer is Dead

Where: Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Fridays; 7 p.m. Wednesdays; 2 and 8 p.m. Thursdays and Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; no performances Dec. 25, Jan. 7 and Jan. 11-14; closes Jan. 15

Tickets:
$14.50 to $73

Contact: (510) 647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org

“Lemony Snicket’s The Composer is Dead”artsBerkeley Repertory Theatreentertainment

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