As I settled into my seat at Pipe Dreams Studio Theatre this past Saturday, program in hand, I was excited: a musical, produced by a student theatre, at my school? Naturally, I was curious to see what my colleagues had been spending their past couple of weeks putting together.
There’s also a distinct lack of media coverage for the Jack the Ripper murders, which claimed the lives of five London women in 1888, so I was interested to see the angle from which this musical approached the subject.
As the first act of “Ripper” began, I could feel the atmosphere begin to take hold, and I prepared myself for what was promising to be a thrilling and daring musical. And by the end of the show, I couldn’t help but feel slightly hollow.
I don’t believe this is an issue with the cast or production team. There were several standout performers (Will Koski’s Chester and Mia Klek’s Mary held their own remarkably well as the show’s driving forces), and you could always tell that the cast was “on” whenever they were onstage.
The production was also solid, especially for a student theatre production. Aside from a few technical issues (the lack of microphones made it difficult to understand someone if they were turned away, the lighting design didn’t always make it clear where the audience was supposed to focus, etc.), the staging and design work that directors Shawn Foote and Sophie Kibiger, as well as tech director Zac Cary, put behind the production are genuinely pretty impressive.
The larger issue is the show itself.
Now, don’t get me wrong, Duane Nelsen’s score is perfectly serviceable, and I found myself drawn in multiple times by the bizarre progressions and unconventional time signatures.
Where “Ripper” really falls flat is the script. One of my major concerns with basing a musical off of an unsolved murder spree was that, well… it’s unsolved. I was curious to see exactly how Nelsen was going to keep the audience in suspense when there were never going to be any firm answers.
The answer, unfortunately, was that he didn’t, really. Much of the show follows a basic and repetitive structure. A woman is murdered, someone close to the woman is indicted, they get arrested, something else happens to absolve them, they’re released, and somebody else gets murdered.
In fact, the primary focus of the musical isn’t the Jack the Ripper murders at all. Though the circumstances of the killings bring Mary and Chester, the ultimate protagonists of the musical, together at the start of the show, by the end, the murders have almost disappeared into the background altogether, only returning to the forefront in a bizarre last-minute twist that left me scratching my head.
There is a good, even great, show hidden deep down in this script, but I feel like it’s going to need heavy revision before I can readily recommend that another theatre company put it on.
If there’s any way I can summarize my feelings about the show in brief, I’ll simply say I’m humbled by the level of dedication and passion the cast and crew have put into a subpar script. I look forward to seeing what these students can bring to an even stronger show. For their incredible talents alone, “Ripper” is worth your time.
“Ripper” runs at Pipe Dreams studio theatre from Friday, Oct. 25 through Saturday, Nov. 16th. Tickets are available at pdtheatre.org