ONSTAGE REVIEW: Fox’s impressive production of ‘Sleepy Hollow’ is true to original story


I have to keep reminding myself that this is a fairly small-scale production.

It’s getting tougher and tougher to remember that I’m not at the Buell Theatre  as the Aurora Fox production of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” enters its second act. There’s already been an epic and gory Revolutionary War battle scene, complete with muskets, cannons and dismembered hands. I’ve lost count of all of the scenes with live fire — between the 18th century scenes featuring pot-belly stoves and village greens, the very real flames have been blazing and plentiful. Then there’s the cast of more than 20, an epic ensemble that lends this show the feel of a big-budget production transported to the Fox’s main stage.

That big-budget feel is one of the most compelling elements of “Sleepy Hollow,” a show that boasts a keen eye for creepy detail and a fidelity to Washington Irving’s original text. That attention to the source material is all the more refreshing in an age of constant reinterpretations and rewrites; this isn’t the “Sleepy Hollow” of Disney or Fox television.

The show instead offers the roots of a story that’s become a touchstone of American Halloween lore. Cook’s adaptation of the story follows the structure and language of Ichabod Crane’s short story. That fidelity is at once one of the show’s biggest appeals and one of its most difficult downfalls. There’s a lot of dialogue here, and the language is formal and dense. The stretches of thrilling action come between scenes of small-town, 18th-century life. Ghouls and ghosts share stage time with long scenes of communal celebrations, schoolhouse lessons and church meetings.

The thriller set in the late 18th century follows scholar Ichabod Crane (Liam Speros) as he arrives in the town of Tarrytown, New York, to take a job in the local schoolhouse. An awkward and brainy disciplinarian, Crane has trouble fitting into the small community. Local bully Abraham Van Brunt (Michael Travis Risner) and his gang of toughs don’t waste any time in making Crane their target. That harassment only worsens when Crane catches the eye of Katarina Van Tassel (Heather Taylor). Crane soon finds himself competing with Brunt for her affection.

As Crane matches wits and brawn with Brunt and as he struggles to find a place in the community, he starts hearing unsettling local legends about the Headless Horseman, the phantom of a Hessian mercenary killed in the Revolutionary War. This ghoul still roams the countryside around Tarrytown, intent on finding and killing the one responsible for his death.

Director Charles Packard and assistant director Robert Michael Sanders are painstaking in their loyalty to bringing Irving’s short story to life. That care comes through in the impressive set designed by Jen Orf. The stage seamlessly takes on the mood and feel of town squares, battlefields, school houses and isolated wilderness. The attention also comes through in the show’s on-point casting. Liam Speros’ performance as Ichabod Crane takes a cue straight from the story. He is the lanky, awkward scholar of Irving’s text, not the beefy action hero of television. As Brunt, Risner is the exact opposite, a rowdy ruffian who will willingly chop wood and duel with swords to win the hand of Van Tassel, played with charm by Taylor.

Some of the show’s high points come in the performances by the ensemble. Jack Wefso is a delight as Peter Vanderdonk, a swordsman who works to help Crane learn the fineries of dueling. As the omniscient narrator, Leonard Barret’s booming voice and subtle delivery is perfect; Aurora Fox vet Jack Casperson is endearing as the town architect Yost Van Houten. Missy Moore is downright frightening as the Snow Maiden, a ghoul that haunts Crane before his ultimate meeting with the big baddie. Speaking of the main villain, Kurt Brighton is unsettling and eerie as the Hessian who loses his head.

All of these touches make up for the show’s slower stretches. The details help make the production work here — a noose strung over a branch of a gnarled old tree, a flaming jack-o’-lantern, the pop and crack of musket fire. These are the details that successfully bring the story of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman from the page to the stage.

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” 

Runs until Nov. 3 at the Aurora Fox,

9900 E. Colfax Ave.

Tickets start at $26.

Information: 303-739-1970 or aurorafox.org.

* * *