The experiential hollowness of “The Hollow,” by book writer Hunter Foster and composer-lyricist Matt Conner, and based on Washington Irving’s celebrated short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” has less to do with a certain opaqueness than a decided flatness. To put it bluntly, it’s a snooze. Neither spooky nor comically infused, the musical unfolds as a somber evening service of ballads and chorales. Some songs, like the plaintive “Goodnight Prayer,” delivered silkily by actress Whitney Bashor, possess a supple beauty. But they coalesce around no urgent dramatic idea.
While there can be delight in the mere process of exploring new musical works, a company’s rolling out of two problematic premieres at once forces a reviewer to make unpleasant choices. So if I have to choose, I would say that “The Boy Detective Fails” offers the more intriguing potential. Meno’s modernist, pulp-ish novel illuminates the despair of Billy Argo, a sensitive, anxiety-ridden soul who gains renown as a precocious crime solver in his fictitious home town of Gotham, N.J. He’s convulsed by many outside stimuli, the most tragic being the suicide of his beloved sister, Caroline.
The whimsy of Meno’s literary achievement might transfer to the stage more successfully if the work were more widely known. As it is, the detachment of the central character, played by Stephen Gregory Smith, makes Billy a musical-theater cipher. The most vital thing about a dramatic character cannot be simply that he was the author’s impetus for a book.
Meno and Gwon strip away some of the novel’s other characters and subplots and try to develop a story around the haunting of Billy by his sister’s death. There are encounters in a halfway house with Billy’s villainous nemesis, Professor Von Golum (Thomas Adrian Simpson, looking a lot like Christopher Lloyd in the “Back to the Future” movies). They sing a couple of lively duets together, in a rather unremarkable score. But “Boy Detective” never makes clear who the heck this professor fellow is, or what, for that matter, Billy and he are to each other.
The most promising interlude evolves between Smith’s Billy and his quirky love interest, a kleptomaniac named Penny, who’s played with a tiny wisp of Tina Fey by the talented Anika Larsen, who sings the sweet ballad “Little Mysteries.” In most other respects, “The Boy Detective,” as directed by Joe Calarco and simply adorned by set designer Derek McLane and costume designer Kathleen Geldard, is a puzzle awaiting its own more resonant solution.