By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
Flashpoint Theatre does it again: the second show of their summer season (following their opener, Miz Martha) is a knockout, with Ben Dibble giving a performance of stunning virtuosity. Herringbone is a strange and compelling musical by anybody's standards.
Everybody who goes to the theater regularly in Philadelphia knows Dibble's range, from Shakespeare to children's shows; he sings, he dances, he acts in comedies and tragedies. But in Herringbone, he does it all at once, playing multiple characters--dead and alive, male and female, old and young-- while narrating the story.
The plot: An eight-year-old boy, George, is tutored in show biz by Chicken Mosley, a has-been who murdered a midget named Lou, his partner in their vaudeville double-act. George seems possessed by his new talent, dancing obsessively, unable to stop to eat or go to school. But he is possessed by the ghost of 37-year-old Lou, and George is trapped by this man who wants to live through his body, and Lou wants women as well as revenge.
George's parents, desperate during the Depression, decide George should make their fortune, and George is further trapped by their frantic ambition. Dibble plays every character: George's terrified mother with her flutey voice and fluttery hand, to vulgar Lou with his raspy voice, plus a tailor, a lawyer, and a gum-chewing hotel clerk. Sometimes the characters argue, and Dibble snaps up and back between them.
At the start of Act Two we watch Dibble apply the slightest bit of eye makeup, and suddenly his open, smiling face is transformed into something sinister, both terrifying and terrified. This, folks, is show business, and transformations are the name of the game.
With a complicated book by Tom Cone, startling music—some atonal, some parodic-- by Skip Kennon, and clever lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh, Herringbone is both entertaining and thought-provoking. It's a ghost story, but it's also an allegory: of the passion of a performer who cannot not perform? Or of stage parents who drive their children to fame? Or, as B.D. Wong (who performed this show years ago) suggested, an allegory of growing up, a little boy becoming a man, accepting life on sometimes ugly adult terms.
Onstage is a small band led by the thrilling Dan Kazemi on piano, whose dramatic presence creates two more characters; he is joined by Joshua Neale on bass and Lee Morrison on drums. Thom Weaver's lighting creates wonderfully disturbing shadows on walls and on faces and Jenn Rose's choreography creates big effects in a small space. Bill Fennelly's direction manages to keep this wild show under superb control.
Flashpoint Theatre Co. at Off-Broad Street Theatre at First Baptist Church, 1636 Sansom Street. Through July 27. Tickets $25