LAST YEAR, there were no Spiro Pavlovich jokes in the Law School review, which was odd, because just about every other Law School jokes that could be made came up in the course of the show. This year, there are no such omissions. Holmes is Where the Hark Is relies heavily on inside one-liners; even jokes that are comprehensible to outsiders (as when a Johnny Carson figure tells a class, "How angry was the crowd? As angry as the Harvard Law faculty when Jimmy Carter announced his cabinet") rely on some knowledge of the school. How inside is the show? So inside that the Law Record reviewer, a second-year law student, confessed he understood about half the jokes; which suggests that anyone unfamiliar with the world north of the Science Center will find the humor even more impenetrable.
By rights, that impenetrability would destroy the show for anyone not in line for a Harvard law degree. The plot is a nonsensical satire of Sherlock Holmes, who arrives with his flaky sidekick to root out evil in the form of an improbable version of Professor Moriarty. It is as outrageous as a plot can be, serving only as a thin vehicle for strings of lawyerly jokes. These range from imitations of professors (if they're all as good as the one of Roberto Unger, the only professor whose lecture style undergraduates are likely to recognize, they're very funny--but if you've never taken the courses, who knows?) to jokes about job placement interviews (the recruiter tells an insect-costumed student, "The last WASP we had working for us went to Raid. Isn't that funny, a WASP working for a Raid company?"). All of the jokes rely on knowing the institution thoroughly.
Nevertheless, Holmes is Where the Hark Is--a reference, by the way, to the Law School cafeteria, Harkness Commons--is not a dramatic disaster. Do It Yourself, a now-famous Lowell House production, relied no more heavily on College jokes than Holmes relies on the Law School, and was only funnier because its humor was directly connected to undergraduates' lives. Howard Katz, Robert Noto and Ivan Orton have come up with a book that pokes fun at every aspect of Law School life, and one leaves with a sense not of frustration at having missed the point, but of having glimpsed an entirely different University subculture. Which--particularly if you're interested in going on into corporate law and are therefore planning to apply to the Law School--is not entirely a bad thing.
The members of the subculture who put on the review obviously have a great time doing it. The funniest of all are the Nerds, a quartet of wonks (as we in the College would say) who spend their time plotting ways to get onto the Law Review. But the other actors, while less polished, get by on sheer enthusiasm. A few less-than-professional voices only add to the show's charm, while most of the leads are good enough to carry the show by themselves. Geoffrey Menin's score (although occasionally imitative and frequently too loud) and the authors' brilliant lyrics (although often inaudible) give the show a nice flair. True, the chorus line isn't exactly off-Broadway material, but that lack of expertise does not really matter because obviously everyone in the cast is laughing as much at themselves as the audience is laughing with them.
A decision to see Holmes is Where the Hark Is should probably be based more on an anthropological interest than on a search for a musical. Because unless you're planning to take someone along to explain why the rest of the audience is rolling in the aisles at a joke about torts, Holmes is Where the Hark Is is an insiders' guide to the Law School--a very funny guide indeed, but unfortunately, it may be just a little more inside than most outsiders can take.