It should be elementary: If you're going to hang a show on a big-name film star, he should be able to carry the play, not just survive it.
As it turns out, Jay Baruchel (She's Out of My League, Million Dollar Baby), unlike so many of his celebrity antecedents, can. The Montreal-based actor, who divides his energies between a Hollywood career and Habs fandom, hoists the Segal Centre's dense and daffy new adaptation of Sherlock Holmes upon his shoulders and holds it aloft almost all the way to the finish line.
Baruchel, performing in his first play since he was a student at the arts high school downtown, is a sparky Sherlock – bouncy and slightly bent in all senses. He delivers his know-it-all dialogue with offbeat charisma and a flair for funny physicality.
We first meet Baruchel's boyish detective (the rest of the cast is young to match him) in his laboratory, his hands hugging his armpits as he stares at test tubes and baffles his prospective new flatmate at 221B Baker Street by deducing everything about him at a glance. (Playing Watson, Karl Graboshas displays an admirable variety of shades of incredulity.)
Baruchel's only problem is stamina. The late Greg Kramer, who adapted two of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stories into this play and died just before rehearsals where he surely would have revised it, penned a version of "the world's only consulting detective" saddled by a non-stop torrent of smarty-pants dialogue. There's so much deduction, so little reflection that by the end of the second act Baruchel was literally out of breath – and even stumbled over a few lines.
Thankfully, director Andrew Shaver has cooked up a stylish, sardonic staging where all tears in the fabric of the fiction are permissible – and the two mysteries (Can Sherlock solve the case? Can Baruchel make it to the end?) can snuggle side by side comfortably. The audience is winked at regularly with references to Holmes mythology (for instance, he is never allowed to make it through the word "elementary" without interruption) and meta-theatricality abounds.
When Holmes walks a few metres on the stage, the lighting signals we've moved from one area of London to another, and the detective remarks on more than one occasion: "Ah, we're here already." It's a mark of the character's perceptiveness that he can see through the theatricality of the show he's been written in, though these moments also seem like a running gag about a movie actor puzzled and pleased by a less realistic medium.
Most of the other actors are imported from Shaver's zany indie company SideMart Theatrical Grocery. Much of the enjoyment of the production – set in James Lavoie's leathery, industrial version of Victorian England – comes from silly, quick-change doubling (in a series of small roles, Trent Pardy is a gas) and manic movement that seems inspired by silent movies. Gemma James-Smith, playing a proto-feminist fatale, has the most expressive eyes since Mary Pickford.
The villains are led by fey, red-jacketed Moriarty (Kyle Gatehouse), who stands tall like an exclamation point in his criminal certainty, a nice corporeal counterpoint to Baruchel's hunched, pestering question mark. He's accompanied by Lady Orchid (Deena Aziz), who traffics in opium and possesses an accent of indeterminate origin, and my favourite of the baddies, Colonel Moran, who, in Graham Cuthbertson's performance, is a surprisingly soulful brute.
The upside to Shaver and Kramer's approach is this Sherlock Holmes doesn't take itself too seriously – a refreshing change from today's superhero cinema where everything is dark, brooding and entirely oblivious to its own artifice to the point of absurdity.
The downside is we never get fully invested in the mystery of a kidnapped member of parliament championing opium control in England at a time when the poppy was still legal – and at times, particularly those underscored by Jesse Ash's unsubtle sound design, the show threaten to tip into full-blown spoof.
Any passion in this Sherlock is only to be found in its smooth surface, in Kramer's embedded commentary that drug prohibitionists and the criminal underworld are each other's accomplices, and, in Baruchel's performance, which defied my cynical expectations.