“I present to you a story/set upon a northern shore/the denizens of lighthouse/during times of war” the male ghost sings as he presents the audience with the story of Whisper House. He introduces the characters to us: Lilly (keeps the lighthouse/she’s afraid of the unknown/she’s no ray of sunshine/so mostly she’s alone) the sheriff, Charles (will he stand for justice/or something else instead), Yasuhiro (he hails from old Japan/he searches for redemption/in this strange and foreign land), and young Christopher (he’s come to live with Lilly/and he’s got visions in his head/he may be our main attraction). He questions all of them: are you “better off dead”?
Duncan Sheik and Kyle Jarrow’s new musical, Whisper House, carefully crafts a new style of story-telling that is powerful, unique and riveting.
I honestly didn’t think that Sheik would be able to pull off, yet again, another juxtaposition of worlds. The first was in Spring Awakening when he juxtaposed the story set in the 1890’s with modern rock music. It was brilliantly done and well executed. This time, it’s the ghosts that are singing his contemporary pop/folk/rock score while the story is set in February, 1942. The minute the two ghosts – David Poe and Holly Brook – walk on stage in their ghostly apparel, you realize that you are witnessing something special.
Whisper House almost feels like a “play with music”, as none of the main characters in the story (besides the ghost) actually sing. With none of the actors singing, the story is grounded in harsh reality. It is set in a Maine lighthouse during World War II at the time when German U-boats were sighted on the Atlantic coast. The FBI was arresting thousands of suspected enemy aliens, mostly of German, Italian and Japanese descent. Now the story wouldn’t have been as powerful without the music and yet the music doesn’t tell the full story. They need each other to exist, but only in the way that is uniquely presented. The interplay between the two is phenomenal and that’s why I think Whisper House is borderline genius.
I went into this production knowing the score very well. I had been listening to the Whisper House CD released by Duncan Sheik for almost a year as it had quickly become one of my favorite records. (Holly Brook, the female ghost, also sings on this CD.) Though I was familiar with the score, I didn’t actually understand the story so as it unfolded in front of me, I was on the edge of my seat. The best part was that it almost felt like I saw two different shows simultaneously – the play and then a concert version of Whisper House.
The music was played in a way that felt concert-like and yet still very dramatic. Both Poe and Brook had earpieces (something you rarely see in a musical) and were in perfect sync with the incredible seven-piece band. The beautiful arrangements of Sheik’s songs featured a fantastic woodwind/horn section – clarinet, bass clarinet, french horn, trumpet and piccolo trumpet. These arrangements were some of the best moments in the music. The duo’s vocal harmonies throughout all 12 songs were spot-on and perfectly in tune.
The band became a subtle part of the story as they dawned different masquerades throughout the show. First as the ghosts of a hired band for a steamship that had sunk off the Atlantic in the early 1900’s, followed by top hat illusionists, Japanese geishas, masked Venetian carnival revelers and Hessian soldiers. All of this just added to the overall effect of the show.
Sheik has created a whole new musical vernacular for musicals. It’s current and up-to-date while still never losing his story-telling abilities. He’s bridging the gap between the two worlds and doing it very well. Because his perspective is so current, when Whisper House gets to Broadway (because I know it will), it will not feel out-dated or be coined as a “bad rock musical” as several of other “pop/rock” musicals have.
The music wasn’t the only fantastic part of this production. Mare Winningham’s portrayal of Lilly is Tony-worthy; every nuance was perfectly meticulous. The interplay between Lilly and her servant, Yosuhiro (Arthur Acuna), was completely understated – just like it should have been. You knew that each other cared and relied on the other, but neither one of them could outwardly show it. Every character had an enormous backstory that the audience members weren’t privy too, yet we all understood each of the characters.
The beautiful set designed by Michael Schweikardt and incredible lighting design by Matthew Richards only added to the already Broadway-worthy production. The sound design by Dan Moses Schreier (as noted above) is some of the best I’ve heard in the theatre and the projections they used (during most of the songs) just added another dimension to the production.
“If you have a bell let it ring/While you live you should sing/But the show’s over for now/Take a bow” the male ghost sings as the show ends. This production ends February 21st at The Old Globe, but I have a feeling it’s far from playing it’s last song. If the producers are smart, they’ll find a small Broadway house, like the John Golden Theatre, to let Whisper House sing into next year’s Tony Awards.
Whisper House at The Old Globe
January 13th – February 21, 2010