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The Secret of the Old Queen

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The Secret of the Old Queen

Stage Left Theatre

By Albert Williams

For two guys who'll turn 70 next year, the Hardy Boys are remarkably youthful--like teenagers, in fact. This pair of amateur sleuths, dark-haired Frank and his blond younger brother Joe, have been solving mysteries in and around idyllic, all-American Bayport since 1927, when "Franklin W. Dixon" published the first novel, The Tower Treasure. ("Dixon" was the corporate pen name for a string of writers commanded by Edward Stratemeyer, who also created Nancy Drew, Tom Swift, and the Bobbsey Twins.) Over the decades the Hardy books have entertained generations of youngsters with tales of suspense leavened with friendly comedy--stories whose real purpose was to establish wholesome teenage role models for preteens.

On the surface the Dixon books were sexless: Frank and Joe had girlfriends, but they didn't really count, and their father, famous detective Fenton Hardy, was a widower living with his spinster sister, Aunt Gertrude. But efforts to banish sexuality inevitably merely disguise it; these breathless detective stories about two handsome youths bonded in perfect closeness spoke as love stories, at least to some readers--as male-male romances whose lack of physical passion made them all the more romantic.

I haven't read the recent crop of Dixon novels, but a glance at the juvenile section of Super Crown assures me that the Hardys are still around and that an effort has been made to give them a modern edge: quaint older titles like The Secret of the Island Treasure and The Mystery in the Old Mine have given way to the lurid likes of Deathgame, Shock Jock, and Blown Away. (I fully expect Billy Zane and Keanu Reeves to star in any upcoming movie, with an Uzi-toting Sylvester Stallone as father Fenton.) But Stage Left Theatre has updated the boys in a different way: its charming, funny new musical, The Secret of the Old Queen, finds Frank and Joe probing the ultimate mysteries--friendship, love, and identity.

The Hardy Boys meet Rocky Horror? Not at all. It would have been all too easy for Stage Left--which commissioned this work as a follow-up to its hit Nancy Drew spoof, The Clue in the Old Birdbath--to give us a sardonic, sexploitive send-up of these hokey old kids' books. Instead the Minneapolis-based team of songwriter Paul Boesing and playwright Timothy Cope have teamed up with Stage Left coartistic director Sandra Verthein to produce something genuinely surprising: a parody/tribute that honors the books' underlying warmheartedness while scolding the series for its white-bread simplemindedness. With a cheerful, tongue-in-cheek smile instead of a leer or a sneer, The Secret of the Old Queen evokes the ingenuous original even as it explores emotional and sexual implications, both hetero and homo, that "Franklin W. Dixon" never dared consider.

As in a real Hardy Boys story, the plot hardly matters; indeed, Frank and Joe show no talent for deduction, responding to the most obvious clues with a thunderstruck wonder better suited to Dr. Watson than Sherlock Holmes. Hired to break up a gang of burglars who've been preying on "Bayport's bachelor elite" (the hairdresser, the antique dealer), the duo catch the crooks through a combination of impulsive pluck and dumb luck. Like the books, the musical identifies the villains by their swarthy, unshaven features and eccentric behavior--or rather it seems to do so, though the irony of a song called "The Usual Suspects" hints otherwise. By seeming to follow the old formulas, the play actually generates a certain amount of interest in who dun it--the show certainly offers a more interesting mystery than the musical Clue playing down the street.

But the crucial element of the books is adventure, and it's in this area that The Secret of the Old Queen has the most fun. "Boys are made for danger / I guess it's in our genes," Frank and Joe sing, and they spend most of the show proving it, starting with their entrance in a small airplane. Of course the plane crashes--"Whoa, Nelly!" cries Joe as the craft lurches, one of the campy double-entendres that pepper the script--forcing the brothers to sing their opening number hanging in parachute harnesses. Like most of the songs to come, this is a playful, melodically graceful evocation of a faux-innocent style that found its principal expression in the Walt Disney films and TV shows of the 1950s. In act two, the boys are caught in a storm while motorboating to Ghost Island. The bad weather is signaled by a glass of water thrown from offstage; our heroes are rescued by a dancing coast guard officer, who leads the chorus in a tap-happy tribute to the mystique of uniforms. Here and in other numbers, Scott Sandoe's choreography features some of the perkiest, silliest steps this side of the Mickey Mouse Club or The Happiest Millionaire. But the show is capable of a strangely fragile beauty as well, as in the first-act finale, a hauntingly slow rag danced by the whole company at a costume ball where everyone just happens to be in drag.

Making an aesthetic virtue out of budgetary limitations, Verthein has staged the musical as if it were a homespun effort by children: instead of designing sets, Robert G. Smith has cleverly chosen to establish each scene with a black-and-white line drawing in the style of the old books, depicting such locations as the Hardy home, a convenient rock, the Bayport Center for the Arts (a pomo monstrosity), and the "Old Queen" of the title--a beat-up jalopy. (Yes, it really does contain a secret; you'll have to see the show to find out what it is.)

The fine cast discover just the right balance of warmth and silliness in their characters. Ben Dooley and Thomas Patrick neither undercut Frank and Joe's gee-whiz simplicity nor come off as dopes: we can believe these guys are the straight arrows they seem to be--or rather, we can believe that they believe it, so when things start to get a little peculiar their confusion rings true. Jacquey Rosati and Jennifer A. Rose are winning as the brothers' bobby-soxer girlfriends, annoyed at playing second fiddle to bad guys; so is Keith Schneider as the Hardys' chubby chum Chet Morton. And while Jack Tippett goes too far in his caricature of the pipe-smoking pop, Pamela Turlow and James E. Grote are delightful in the supporting roles of eccentric arts philanthropist Cornelius Digby and loony costumier Electra Carstairs--the kind of roles Ed Wynn and Elsa Lanchester used to play in Disney films. Best of all, the actors are clearly having a great time: they seem to genuinely enjoy the material and one another. That, combined with their talent and with the wit and warmth of the material, makes for funny, tuneful, smart entertainment with a few surprising twists.

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