Ever since Spring Awakening, singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik has taken to musical theater composition like a duck to water. Or, more accurately, a duck to all seven seas, as he’s enjoyed an unusually prolific and varied career. A non-exhaustive list of his musicals would include his dalliances with Yuppie horror; Lewis Carroll; Southern Black female empowerment; swinger comedy; and a feel-good children’s story.
A musical ghost story circa World War II, then, hardly seems out of place. But Whisper House, co-written with the equally unusually prolific Kyle Jarrow, got a little lost in the last decade. It did get the concept album treatment in 2009, and it got produced enough to suggest a commercial breakthrough was just around the bend. Instead, nothing – that is, nothing until this spring, when the musical plays New York City for the first time.
By beating Off-Broadway to the punch, Black Button Eyes’ production of Whisper House is nothing if not strategically timed. But is it anything else?
It is a ghost story circa World War II, set in a lonely lighthouse in Maine. There’s the boy Christopher, sent to live here after his father’s plane is shot down and his mother goes insane with grief. There’s Miss Lily, Christopher’s aunt, reluctant new guardian, and the keeper of the lighthouse and a terrible secret. There’s Yasuhiro, Lily’s lighthouse-keeping assistant with a secret he’s keeping from Lily. There’s Charles, the local sheriff whose dislike of the Germans is only matched by his dislike of Yasuhiro. And, of course, there’s the lingering spirits of the Solomon Snell, a yacht that sank just off the coast some years ago.
But that’s just a character line-up. We ask again: what is Whisper House?
Well, it’s a curious ghost story, indeed. At once, these six sets of angst overstuff the story so it’s mortally earthbound, but by the same turn, it’s too wispy to fully materialize.
Sheik is an undeniably skilled composer with a particular knack for moody minor keys that launch into exultant majors. But he generally seems more comfortable commenting on his characters’ actions rather than fully inhabiting them dramatically. (This is especially true when he also has a hand in the libretto, like he does here.) Writing at a remove worked great for the anachronistic Spring Awakening, and it was appropriate for the chic and clinical American Psycho.
Taking “removed” to an extreme, the omniscent commenting ghosts (Black Button’s favorite Kevin Webb and Mikaela Sullivan) sing nearly all the songs, on top of poltergeisting up the place and tempting the living to drown their angst in the sea. Ironically, then, the ghosts are the most fleshed-out characters, gradually shedding their cynical perspective that all are better off dead. (You’ll hear all about that in their insistent leitmotif.) But the living have little to do for themselves. Kate Nawrocki and Karmann Bajuyo, for instance, can only play stalwart in the face of changing tides and injustice, solidly admirable as they are. And it’s a credit to Leo Spiegel that he’s a sympathetic Christopher even as he swings between inescapable melancholy and barking out contemporary racial epithets.
For his part, where Jarrow means to go “oddball,” it instead sounds glib and, well, detached. For instance: the ghosts, you see, were lovers, but “one was Methodist, the other…no one remembers [,but it was something to make their union problematic.]” Ghosts need a stronger anchoring point than that, you’d think.
Even the best song, the loping and sardonic “Tale of Solomon Snell,” is itself detached. It’s not about the wreck that led the ghosts to the lighthouse; it’s about the yacht’s unfortunate namesake who died generations prior.
Set as it is at a solitary lighthouse on the North Atlantic coast, Whisper House can’t help but feel a little chilly and remote, even as it does its best to invite you closer. Not that there aren’t worthy ideas floating around; it’s just that it feels like a musical idea that leapt out of Sheik and Jarrow’s brains during a writer’s retreat that just happened to get lost in the shuffle of their very busy schedules. It’ll be interesting to see if they’ve tweaked it at all come its Off-Broadway opening in March, to see if it can reach a new height, or if it’ll remain minor Sheikery as he moves on to other projects.