Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Palm Springs / Coachella Valley

Sherlock Holmes Confidential
Desert Ensemble Theatre
Review by Robert Sokol

Also see Robert's review of Mr. Parker and interview with Michael McKeever

Alex Price, Justin Ledesma, and Barbara Kerr
Photo by Tara Howard
Exploring the backstory of a beloved character, or their sidekick, or arch enemy, or second cousin-twice-removed, has become an entertainment industry staple. The same goes for origins and alternate universes, which is where Sherlock Holmes Confidential, a new comedy by Desert Ensemble Theatre co-founder Tony Padilla seems to fit.

In the playwright's mostly lighthearted take, the famously dour and formidable master detective is reimagined as an insecure and not particularly talented fop. A shell, a shill and a sham, fronting the work of more skilled sleuths. It's an interesting premise and one that Padilla explores cleverly, with a healthy dollop of female empowerment throughout.

Sherlock Holmes (Alex Price) is a novice detective, and Doctor Watson (Justin Ledesma)–it's his name, not his profession–has just returned to London from a decade of military service in India. They are introduced as potential flat mates at the newspaper office of the very flirtatious Miss Nora Tate (Katrina Dixon) where Watson is seeking employment as a staff writer. She refers them to a Mrs. Hudson (Barbara Kerr), who occasionally takes on boarders in her expansive home, the same building where Nora herself lives.

Holmes and Watson get on well, and Watson's newspaper reporting, with liberal embellishments, of cases Holmes has solved builds a reputation that begins to exceed the capabilities and the confidence of the principal detective. This is exacerbated when Inspector Leicester (Larry Dyekman) of Scotland Yard bring them a challenge with potentially dire national consequences. How to solve that is the first of many mysteries proposed throughout the two-act evening.

Directed by Jerome Elliott Moskowitz, the production seesaws between strengths and weaknesses.

The visually impressive stage design by Thomas L. Valach and dressing by Tessa Gregory-Walker create the appropriate era-suggestive gentlemen's drawing room clutter. It is a shame that the reveal of the set lacks a clever flourish, presented instead by the usual scurrying about of back-clad stagehands trying to be invisible.

The costumes by Andrew Maclaine–particularly for Holmes, Watson, and Hudson–are nicely detailed. The only major sartorial misstep is a straight-from-Oz pair of ruby red shoes in Act II that draw the wrong kind of attention. That's an accomplishment, given that the unfortunate actor wearing them is also sporting what vies to be one of the worst wigs ever seen on a male actor in the region. Obviously meant to distinguish his role in Act II from the one he plays in Act I, and possibly intended as an ironic comment on the personality of the character, it only reads as sad and poorly executed.

Among the cast of five, Kerr and Ledesma are the ones to watch. She graces Mrs. Hudson with abundant intelligence, regal confidence, and impeccable timing. He imbues Watson with critical thinking, competence, and terrifically dry humor. They both deliver wonderfully clipped British accents, with Ledesma hinting at Indian influences in Watson's lilt.

Less effective are Price, Dixon, and Dyekman. Looking like he could offer some Ted Lasso charm laced with a plummy accent, Price quickly reduces Holmes to an insufferably petulant child in need of a time out, or a buffoon wholly unworthy of Watson and Hudson's efforts at redemption. Dixon, prominent in the somewhat slow-moving opening scene, has chosen a speaking affect that initially makes the play look to be headed into heavily stylized melodrama territory. This gets worse at the point she trades from upper to lower class cadence and it makes it difficult to take her character seriously. Dyekman looks the part of a Scotland Yard chief but never feels comfortable in either character, even when he isn't stuck with the unfortunate shoes and wig.

Theatrical seasons are conceived long in advance and rarely with any guarantee that necessary resources of time, treasure and talent will be available once rehearsals start. While not completely successful, Sherlock Holmes Confidential was a brave choice, both in scale and for nurturing new work. It wraps up an ambitious season of innovative programming by Desert Ensemble Theatre and Valley audiences should look forward to its offerings next fall at the Palm Springs Cultural Center.

Sherlock Holmes Confidential runs through April 21, 2024, at Desert Ensemble Theatre, Palm Springs Cultural Center, 300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs CA. Remaining performances are Friday at 7:30 pm, Saturday at 2:00 pm and 7:30 pm, and Sunday at 2:00pm. Tickets are $37.50. For tickets and information, please visit or call 760-565-2476.