By Colin Douglas
If a theatergoer thinks life is disappointing or less than ideal, he or she needs to visit the new production at the Edge Theater, Nevermore: The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe.
Written and composed by Jonathan Christenson, this melodramatic musical imagines the tragic events that comprised the life and death of one of America’s greatest writers. Poe didn’t have it very easy, even by early 19th century American standards. Christenson helps us understand and appreciate the grim and woeful incidents that shaped and influenced Poe to become one of the most revered poets and earliest writers of the macabre.
Presented by the always-creative Black Button Eyes Company, this beautifully acted and sung, eye-popping finale to their current season is a worthy followup to their recent Shockheaded Peter. Devoted to presenting seldom-seen musicals that incorporate fantasy, magic or elements of horror, this storefront company is unique. Under the enthusiastic artistic direction of Ed Rutherford, who brought to the stage such tantalizing musicals as Coraline, Goblin Market and the Chicago premiere of Amour, we have another terrific production to savor. One can only wonder how Rutherford will top this excellent biographical operetta.
The dramatic story of Poe tells of a multi-talented American writer whose life is filled with horrific incidents, yet peppered with enough moments of dark, unexpected humor to occasionally provide a chuckle. In addition to depicting Poe’s life, this production is a testimony to the clever inventiveness and artistry found within this theatre company. Along with Rutherford’s dynamic direction, this show owes much to several other theatrical artists: Derek Van Barham’s stylized choreography and movement; Nick Sula’s gifted musical direction, orchestrations and live, backstage band; the nightmarish puppets, props and masks designed by Rachelle “Rocky” Kolecke; period-appropriate costumes by Beth Laske-Miller; a haunting surround-sound design by Robert Hornbostel; Jeremy Hollis’ time-ravaged-theatre scenic design; all bathed in Liz Cooper’s eerie and shadowy lighting design.
Very few audiences will approach the musical knowing much, if anything, about Poe’s life. Most theatergoers will have read, or at least heard of, his more famous works, such as “The Tell-tale Heart,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Premature Burial” and “The Fall of the House of Usher;” or his imagery-filled poetry, like “Annabel Lee,” “The Bells,” “Lenore” or “The Raven.” But the events gleaned from Poe’s life are what makes this show so frightening because, while they’re certainly mysterious and embellished by Christenson’s imagination, they’re real and prove that a writer’s work is the sum total of his greatest teacher: life.
Rutherford’s cast is just about as perfect as it gets. Some of Chicago’s finest musical theatre actors make up this seven-member ensemble, most of them playing multiple roles. The company is led by the magnificent, many-talented Jeff Award-winner, Jeremy Trager. He is Player 1, one of the two main narrators of the piece, and an actor whose face and form bespeak suspense and mystery at every turn. The other narrator is the mellifluous Matt McNabb, who also, as Player 2, portrays David Poe, Edgar’s father (who abandoned him as a child), as well as his foster father, the callous Jock Allan. Matt may be remembered from this company’s superb production of Amour, as well as in his Jeff Award-nominated performance in Theo Ubique’s Cats. Both gentlemen spin this tale with frightening relish, jumping in and out of the action in a heartbeat.
As Player 3, the uber talented Ryan Lanning fills the role of Edgar’s younger brother Henry, while also appearing in other parts, such as the ghoulish Grim Reaper and the cadaverous Raven. Lanning may be remembered for playing the title role in Porchlight’s Candide, along with the fierce, button-eyed Other Mother in Coraline. Winsome Maiko Terazawa, recently seen in Pride Films & Plays’ Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, is making her auspicious debut with this company as Player 4. As such, she creates a number of roles, including Edgar’s young sister, Rosalie, Poe’s sympathetic foster mother, Fanny Allan, and the voice of Edgar’s 13-year-old cousin and child bride, Virginia. Terazawa’s lovely voice graces every role with ease.
Jessica Lauren Fisher, one of the co-founders of Eclectic Full Contact Theatre, returns to Black Button Eyes Productions as Player 5, primarily playing Edgar’s actress-mother, Eliza Poe. Fisher is a grand presence, haunting her son Edgar throughout his entire life and into his death. Possessing a richly trained soprano voice, Fisher is a standout in this production. Player 6 is lovely Megan De Lay. With a spunky attitude and a velvety, resonant voice, De Lay portrays, among other characters, Edgar’s true love and spooky soulmate, Elmira Royster. The two meet among the tombstones of the local cemetery where they both enjoy spending quiet, reflective time together. With her long, black hair, Elmira bewitches the writer in every possible way.
That leaves us with the true star of this production. Kevin Webb, whose talents have been enjoyed in almost every production by this company, is Edgar Allan Poe. Having appeared all over Chicago, from the Court Theatre to Pride Films & Plays, Webb mesmerizes in the title role. The actor bears such a strong physical resemblance to Poe that his appearance feels almost supernatural. That Webb also has a vocal range that soars to the rafters is yet one more reason to see this young man; but it’s the hurt and humility, seen through this talented actor’s eyes, that allow him to deliver the story of Edgar Allan Poe into each theatergoer’s heart.
Here is the first production of the New Year that’s an absolute must-see.
Black Button Eyes Productions presents “Nevermore: The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe” through January 28 at the Edge Theatre, 5451 N. Broadway Ave., Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.