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Bryan Banville, Tom Zohar and Kay McNellen. (Photos courtesy of Studio B Photo Productions.)

Nothing says holiday-season counter-programming like having a Halloween musical in December. October 31 plays a very important role throughout Backyard Renaissance Theatre Company’s world premiere of Tarrytown.

Adam Wachter’s script is a modern-day adaptation of Washington Irving’s famous short story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

After leaving his home in Manhattan, a gay schoolteacher, Ichabod Crane (Tom Zohar) moves to Tarrytown, New York. The shy educator soon meets the principal’s assistant, Katrina (Kay McNellen) and a macho college professor, Brom (Bryan Banville).

Katrina rapidly views Ichabod as a close friend, while Brom is both friendly and jealous towards him. All three of them appear to be living fairly normal lives, until it’s revealed that they each are haunted by troubling pasts.

Tarrytown features a similar structure to Irving’s classic plot. Just as in the original, Wachter starts off the evening with scenarios that aren’t out of the ordinary. He makes audiences care about each individual before taking the tale into stranger territory.

Wachter’s narrative is faithful to the spirit of the original plot, and there aren’t any explicit references to a murderously violent headless horseman until past the halfway point of the 90-minute runtime. That’s not a distraction, because one of the best things about the new show are the current day versions of the central characters.

Zohar and Banville establish contrasting personalities that lead to several hilarious conversations and songs. Ichabod is timid and polite while Brom is much more masculine and judgmental towards others. They each sing, with no shortage of emotion, in both comical and dramatic musical numbers such as “History” and “Goes Away.”

If Ichabod and Brom feel like newer versions of the well-established rivals, then Katrina is something else entirely. Washington wrote her as a simple love interest for Ichabod with no personality whatsoever.

That’s not the case in Tarrytown. Instead, Wachter decided to depict her as a complicated workmate of Ichabod’s, whose attitude shifts during her interactions with the two men in her life.

When Katrina is with Ichabod, McNellen portrays her as a charmingly talkative woman who is often funny, joyful and energetic. When Katrina speaks to Brom, McNellen acts in a generally serious, emotionally distant and depressed manner. McNellen handles these changes quite gracefully and like the other stars, expresses her different feelings through song.

Tarrytown is an intimate experience over a long period of time, and Diversionary’s small Black Box Theatre works well as a venue for the production. Artistic Director Francis Gercke, and Producing Artistic Director Anthony Methvin, are invested in establishing relatable New York residents, and the two of them build to a Halloween night climax.

Katie Whalley Banville’s choreography is effective, mainly because her movements feel true to the people who inhabit the village. From a football-themed musical number led by Brom, “Four Downs to the Ten-Yard Line” to the old-fashioned group melody, “The One in the Middle,” her dance moves are organic and complement the original tunes.

The positive qualities of Wacther’s writing and score make Tarrytown worth recommending. His take on “Sleepy Hollow” features intelligent melodies and a good sense of humor.

Yet, as is the case in many premieres, there are aspects about his plot that can be worked on in future versions. Tonally, the piece changes frequently from lighter to darker situations. Some of the biggest dramatic revelations occur far too suddenly, as almost the entire first 30 minutes are presented as a fish-out-of-water comedy.

Kay McNellen and Tom Zohar.

Perhaps, if a few serious moments were introduced earlier, certain solemn incidents will feel more natural.

Another part of Tarrytown that could be altered is the ending. On the one hand, Wachter doesn’t betray the conclusion that Irving originally wrote in his ghost story. On the other hand, the final scene ends abruptly with a very short resolution.

An additional reprise of an earlier tune or even just a few extra moments of music performed by musical director Steven Withers could possibly result in a truly impactful finale.

These issues still don’t change the fact that Watchter brings an enjoyably fresh perspective to a timelessly creepy classic. It’ll make you want to count down the days until next Halloween.

[box] Show times are Thursdays at 8:00 p.m, Fridays at 8:00 p.m, Saturdays at 2:00 p.m and 8:00 p.m, Sundays at 2:00 p.m and Mondays at 7:00 p.m. [/box]

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David Dixon

David Dixon

A fan of theatre from a young age, David Dixon began writing reviews while in middle school, for Union Tribune’s Rated G column and sdcnn.com. He was the Entertainment Editor for SDSU’s The Daily Aztec. Currently, he contributes to San Diego Community News Network, a regional reviewer for Talkin’ Broadway, an interviewer for San Diego Theatre Reviews and has won several San Diego Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards. David is a San Diego Theatre Critics Circle member, an American Theatre Critics Association member & Regional Theatre Tony Award voter.

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