It may be summer in the Bluegrass, but for two weeks on stage at Pioneer Playhouse of Danville, it’s the height of St. Paul’s famed Winter Carnival where one of the city’s wealthiest young men has lost his head–literally.
Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders is the second offering in the historic theatre’s 70th season under the stars. Running from June 25 through July 6, this scintillating mystery featuring everybody’s favorite deerslayer hat-wearing sleuth was written by Jeffrey Hatcher, based on the novel by Larry Millett.
“Everybody loves Sherlock,” says Heather Henson, whose father, Eben C. Henson, founded Pioneer Playhouse in 1950, and who now acts as managing director, running the theatre with her brother, artistic director, Robby Henson, and producer mother, Charlotte.
“We skipped doing a Sherlock Holmes mystery last year,” Henson says, “but when we came across this play, we knew we wanted to bring Holmes and Watson back to our stage.”
Described in reviews as a smart, funny, fast-paced mystery, Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders places its iconic sleuth and his trusted sidekick, Dr. Watson in America for a change. The year is 1896, and the setting is Minnesota in winter. A young man has gone missing just before his wedding, so it’s up to Holmes and Watson, with the help of local barkeep and amateur sleuth, Shadwell Rafferty to track a cold-blooded killer from the icy streets of St. Paul to the frozen Mississippi River.
“The setting makes this particular Sherlock special,” says Robby Henson. “Sherlock is taken out of his comfort zone and brought to 1890’s middle-America, which is teeming with larger than life characters – Norwegians, Scandinavians, Minnesotans. Our actors are having a lot of fun with the accents.”
Playing the role of Sherlock Holmes is Drew Sutherland, an actor based in Lexington, Kentucky, who appeared as Little Willie in Pioneer Playhouse’s opening show, Kong’s Night Out. Eric Seale, also from Lexington, who played beleaguered producer Myron Siegel in “Kong,” takes a turn as Dr. Watson.
“One thing we definitely encourage patrons to do is come out and see all five shows during our ten-week season,” says Heather Henson. “Getting to know our company of actors, getting to see them play such diverse characters over the course of the summer is part of the whole Playhouse experience. These are talented actors, and they really get to strut their stuff and show their range over the course of the summer.”
One such versatile, young actor is Michael Ross, a Danville native, who plays the role of the latest Holmes and Watson sidekick, Shadwell Rafferty.
“Michael grew up here, and has done a lot of theatre in and around Danville,” says Heather Henson, “so we’re really happy to have him as part of our company this year. And we’re also excited to have another local, Bailey Angel, getting a chance to go on stage as well.”
Bailey Angel is from the Harrodsburg, Kentucky area and studies theatre at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. Heather Henson notes that Angel volunteered at the Playhouse last year, and then came back and officially auditioned for the company during the off-season. She was then hired as a 2019 acting apprentice.
“It’s a tier system here at the Playhouse,” explains Robby Henson. “An acting apprentice isn’t guaranteed a role. When they sign on, they know they’ll be doing a lot of behind-the-scenes work. But auditions are open to the whole company, and we try to give everyone a chance to get on stage at least once or twice during the summer.”
“Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders is a perfect show for that,” says Heather Henson. “Sherlock, Watson, and Rafferty are set characters, but the rest of the cast work as an ensemble, playing many different roles, literally wearing many different hats.”
“I think longtime Playhouse patrons will be surprised by the character – or characters — our beloved Patricia Hammond plays,” Heather continues. “Definitely something a little different.”
“This play is a lot like a show we did a few years back, The 39 Steps, which audiences really loved,” says Robby Henson. “There are lots of different characters, lots of quick set changes. It’s a challenge for us – but that’s what we like here at the Playhouse. A challenge.”
Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders, which is directed by Anthony R. Haigh, who has been working in theatre for over fifty years and who helmed Kong’s Night Out, opens June 25 and runs through July 6. Shows run nightly at 8:30 pm, Tuesdays through Saturdays. A home-cooked BBQ dinner is available before the show each night at 7:30 pm. Reservations are suggested for the play; required for dinner. Price for dinner and show is $35; show only is $20.