Theater review: 'Whisper House' at San Diego's Old Globe*
When the two singing ghosts of Duncan Sheik and Kyle Jarrow’s new indie-spirited chamber musical “Whisper House” deliver the opening number, “Better to Be Dead,” the show tips its hand that it has no intention of playing by conventional rules.
A morbid fixation on the grave, after all, isn’t part of the core Rodgers & Hammerstein curriculum that helped shaped this country’s musical comedy sensibility for more than half a century. And moodiness — one of the qualities that distinguished the groundbreaking Tony-winning score for “Spring Awakening” that Sheik wrote with Steven Sater — isn’t the emotional fallback for an art form that would rather be slap happy or sappy than slunk in melancholy or ennui.
But it’s the start of a new year and, if you go along with the math, a new decade. And “Whisper House,” receiving its world premiere at the Old Globe in a darkly enchanting production directed by Peter Askin, shines a dim but discernible black light into the future.
More an intimate music drama than a splashy old-fashioned musical, “Whisper House” operates in an unusual, almost Symbolist fashion. Nearly all of the singing takes place on the spectral level.
It’s 1942, and the Second World War has reached America’s Eastern shores with German U-boats doing their best to undermine Atlantic shipping. Lilly (Mare Winningham), the crusty proprietor of the lighthouse, which her family has run for generations, has taken in the 11-year-old son of her brother, whose fighter plane was shot down over the Pacific.
Christopher (A.J. Foggiano) is having a hard time adapting to life with his aunt, whose no-nonsense manner is the opposite of nurturing. He’s also made uncomfortable by the presence of Yasuhiro (Arthur Acuña), a Japanese immigrant employed at the lighthouse. To Christopher, Lilly is not just weird and mean but she’s harboring the enemy that killed his father.
The complicated plot, which moves between supernatural and historical realms, hinges on the treatment of American citizens whose ancestry could be traced to the Axis powers. Charles (Ted Kōch), the friendly local sheriff, informs Lilly that Yasuhiro will no longer be able to work in what has now been designated “a high-security area.”
This order will be enforced by Lt. Rando (Kevin Hoffmann), who blusters onto the scene with a farcical incompetence that turns increasingly bullying. Meanwhile, those troublesome ghosts, always looking for an opportunity to extract revenge, hope they can use this latest development to impose some additional suffering on Lilly, whose drunken father caused their untimely shipwreck by failing to light the lighthouse one night.
Jarrow is more interested in the personal than the political dimensions of his tale, which could have easily become a simplistic allegory about 21st century terror-rattled America. Instead, he focuses on the relationships of loners who are inspired to reach beyond their imprisoning solitudes at a moment of spiraling crisis.
The dramatic shorthand of the musical, however, threatens to turn the characters into mere characteristics: Lilly is curmudgeonly, Christopher is willful and Yasuhiro is foreign. They’re all endowed with other qualities, but their dominant traits are writ so large that the overall effect is somewhat one-dimensional.
What Jarrow and Sheik handle exceptionally well is the ambiguity of the situation. “Whisper House” keeps us uncertain about how this yarn is going to unfold. Just as Christopher is ever vigilant about what may be lurking in the dark, the audience can’t help being on edge about what’s really endangering these isolated lives.
Sheik's music keeps the pace simmering (rather than racing to a full boil), and his and Jarrow's lyrics patiently (detractors might say tortuously) indulge states of minds. But I found myself swept up in the obsessive circularity of the songs.
Although the later stages of the show get a bit pop psychological, the resolution moved me more deeply than I anticipated. Different sensibilities may be left cold, but it’s hard to imagine anyone not admiring Askin's magnificently integrated staging, gracefully enlivened by dance director Wesley Fata.
Michael Schweikardt’s set conjures a very specific locale while maintaining a transparent theatricality. This is accomplished with the aid of Matthew Richards’ impressive palette of lighting, Dan Moses Schreier’s eerie soundscape, Jenny Mannis’ wide ranging yet stylistically coherent costumes and Aaron Rhyne’s ingenious projections, which broaden the show’s visual elan. [Update: An earlier version of this review misspelled Aaron Rhyne's last name as Rhyme].
The figures created by the ensemble are sharp and distinctive — perhaps too much so at times. This was obviously a deliberate choice, but I would be curious to see whether a more pliant approach from the cast would enhance our investment in their characters’ longings. Still, the vividness of the acting shouldn’t be diminished, and the lyrical presences of Poe and Brook are, to my mind, unimprovable.
“Whisper House” moves perilously yet thrillingly to its own unique beat. What excites me about the musical is the way it reaches for poetry. In an age of shamelessly commercial blockbusters, this is every bit as noteworthy as a return from the dead.
-- Charles McNulty
follow me on Twitter @ charlesmcnulty
“Whisper House,” The Old Globe, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park, San Diego. 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Feb. 21. $36-$89. (619) 234-5623. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Photos: Top: Holly Brook and David Poe. Bottom: Kevin Hoffmann, Mare Winningham and Ted Kōch. Credit: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times