Whisper House: Old Globe, 1/29/10

2 02 2010

“I’ll record in my diary that, theatrically speaking, 2010 started in San Diego with this occult charmer.”  -Charles McNulty, LA Times review

This is quite a bold statement from McNulty, but Whisper House – while still needing a bit of development – certainly makes a dynamic impression.  Following the success of Spring Awakening, Duncan Sheik’s latest theatrical venture at the Old Globe – along with librettist Kyle Jarrow – is something strikingly new on stage, yet strangely familiar from a different form of media.

In the midst of WWII, 11-year-old Christopher loses his father, a soldier whose fighter plane is shot down over the Pacific. When this tragedy debilitates his mother, the inquisitive boy is shipped off to his emotionally-distant Aunt Lilly, who runs a lighthouse on the New England shore with the help of a Japanese immigrant named Yasuhiro.  Set afloat in this strange new world, Christopher begins to hear enchanting music: ghost musicians of a steamship that sank on Halloween night in 1912.  These ghosts give Christopher the attention that his aunt denies – and slowly draw the boy to clues that Yasuhiro may be an enemy spy.

I am always intrigued by the form of musicals, and the interrelationship of book and numbers in this piece is remarkably innovative for stage.  With a few exceptions, Whisper House effectively plays like a film with a pop music soundtrack.  The lead ghosts, the exceptional David Poe and Holly Brook, toy with Christopher’s emotions through a haunting score that loosely and poetically comments on the dramatic situation, much as a film heightens an emotional moment by amping up the background music.  Because the characters in the “real life” drama of Whisper House only sing in diegetic moments, the ghosts’ music is spectral just as a film’s soundtrack is spectral: simultaneously there and yet not there.  (This also explains why – after the opening number – the audience neglected to applaud between pieces. The production numbers rise to the forefront and fade out into underscoring, much as a film score.)  Director Peter Askin stages the show accordingly: the spotlight creates an obvious montage effect in some musical numbers, panning from character to character as they silently reflect on a dramatic moment.  I turned to my roommate laughing as we reached the final number “Take a Bow,” which confirmed my filmic observations: the song lyrically brings out the characters one-by-one for a bow, much as a filmic rolling of the credits.  I have never seen such an interrelationship of music and book onstage before, which places Whisper House as an exciting theatrical innovation.

A.J. Foggiano’s Christopher was – I’m sorry to say – disappointing.  The entire musical centers around the boy’s perception of the world, yet Faggiano could not command the stage accordingly.  Mare Winningham (as Lilly) and Arthur Acuna (Yasuhiro) deliver much more galvanizing and emotionally-nuanced performances, although certain elements of their relationship should be foregrounded earlier in the narrative.  Admittedly, it took me some time to delve into the plot, which lacks fluidity in the beginning; some storyline shifts are a little jarring and unconvincing.  Creating this believability from the outset is essential because Whisper House is largely a realist drama/film, with accompanying spectral song.

Nonetheless, Jarrow hooked me about 10 or 15 minutes in.  Now for what most excites me about Whisper House, besides the formal innovations.  If anyone knows how to contact Kyle Jarrow, Duncan Sheik, or anyone on the creative team directly, please let me know.  I think I know how to develop Whisper House into a powerful political commentary with even stronger contemporary relevance.  All the pieces are in place: the ghosts already straddle 1912 and modern-day America in costume, gesture, and musical style. Yet the ghosts’ motivation for revenge right now is simply a thwarted romance: the male lead singer never had the chance to propose to his beloved female lead before their steamship sank that fated Halloween night.

In addition to this personal motive, why not give the ghosts a historically-rooted desire for the repetition of violence?  Push the steamship’s sinking foward a few years to 1914-1917, and Whisper House could tie the event to WWI.  The unfinished links of WWI could then further motivate the ghosts’ desire for revenge in WWII – and, by poetic extension, comment on the ongoing repetition of violence in current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When Whisper House‘s narrative turned to the historical implications of WWII, I was captivated.   Because Lilly runs a lighthouse, the government calls on her to turn off the light and endanger approaching enemy U-boats; as Lieutenant Rando proudly explains, war makes us cogs in this “great” American machine.  But as Lilly and her nephew learn, this duty to our country often comes to the detriment of personal relationships and humanity itself.  This theme, which already has clear contemporary relevance, could be made all the more powerful by linking the ghosts to a historical strand, rather than simply a thwarted personal romance on a superstitious Halloween night.  Whisper House has all the necessary ingredients to provoke thought about how the violent spectres of the past continue to haunt us today.  With a bit of further development, Kyle Jarrow and Duncan Sheik will have achieved a truly remarkable new piece of musical theater.

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